Bewitched, bothered and bewildered

Don Cheadle and Emayatzy Corinealdi tell the stories behind Miles Ahead.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Don Cheadle with Emayatzy Corinealdi on the task for costume designer Gersha Phillips: "The boxing scene, there's 200 extras in there."
Don Cheadle with Emayatzy Corinealdi on the task for costume designer Gersha Phillips: "The boxing scene, there's 200 extras in there." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The World Premiere of Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead, in which he stars as Miles Davis, opposite Emayatzy Corinealdi, Ewan McGregor, Lakeith Lee Stanfield and Michael Stuhlbarg (great in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs and as Edward G Robinson in Jay Roach's Trumbo), was the Closing Night Gala selection of the New York Film Festival and screened at this year's Glasgow Film Festival.

Cheadle's directorial debut, co-written with Steven Baigleman, leaps across many thresholds. He sculpts his take on Miles Davis as a multi-faceted event, more fast-paced action and addiction thriller, plus reflection on musician's block, than any classic biopic. "Don't call my music jazz; it's social music," we hear Davis say during the first minutes of Miles Ahead.

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis: "You can't be Miles and walk out there looking half-assed."
Don Cheadle as Miles Davis: "You can't be Miles and walk out there looking half-assed."

Pigeonholing is frowned upon all around. 1975 is the temporal hub from where the film flashes back to pivotal memories, such as meeting his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor, played by Corinealdi as an energetic, thoughtful woman, trapped in a not uncommon conundrum. "You're my wife now. Your place is with me. I'll take care of you for the rest of your life." In other words, Davis wants her to stop dancing and end her flourishing career.

McGregor, as journalist Dave Brill, says he writes for Rolling Stone magazine and begins to stalk Miles at his sprawling, messy, beautifully atmospheric apartment. The intrigue around a mysterious session tape also piques the interest of record producer Harper Hamilton, portrayed by Stuhlbarg - in pink tie and Seventies glasses that are due for a fashion resurrection. Who cares about drug and alcohol addictions when money can be made? Hamilton, who squires young musician Junior (Lee Stanfield) around, declares Miles "more profitable dead than alive" and acts accordingly.

Over breakfast at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue with Don Cheadle and Emayatzy Corinealdi, I asked about some of the visual choices of location and costumes in his more than music-oriented work.

Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor)
Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor)

Miles ahead of the game, who is bewitched by whom?

Anne-Katrin Titze: Part of the feel is the apartment - which I thought was a fantastic location. Despite it being such a mess, you'd just want to live there. I at least felt that way.

Don Cheadle: It's an amazing space.

AKT: Did this space at all resemble his apartment? Did you find this? Did you create this place? Because the spirit of place is so great.

DC: Well, you know, we shot this in Cincinnati and a lot of it was location hunting. We actually found a converted church that the family was in the process of converting when we found it. We said, hey, while you guys are in this process, can we just kind of steal it and use it? We shot a very complicated sequence that we had to schedule over a couple of days, turning that apartment around.

That place had four different looks. We shot this kind of a circular track and it took a lot of working the schedule to figure out how to do it. And it's in the movie like four seconds. But still you get to see all the different iterations of that place.

Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) with Miles: "Actually, it's a four-story church."
Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) with Miles: "Actually, it's a four-story church."

AKT: So it is a church, that apartment?

DC: It is a church. Actually, it's a four-story church. You see us upstairs, we put Frances in the bedroom, there is the main area and there is that basement that I walk down into, which is the recording studio that we set up down there. Yeah, that place actually exists in Cincinnati.

Emayatzy tells us about speaking to the real Frances Taylor.

Emayatzy Coriealdi: She had so many stories she was really excited about sharing. I was so glad that Don set that up early on. We really got to sit down and have a good three, four lunches. She would tell little treasures she had, memories she had of him. She remembers him very fondly despite the trials and everything that they went through … They were friends.

DC: They just couldn't be together!

EC: What was so interesting about her story to me was that this is a woman who was one of the original members of West Side Story and worked with Sammy Davis Jr. and all of that. So she had this career that was burgeoning … At the time period, that's what a lot of women did [giving it all up if the husband demanded it]. It's also not as common to have the career that she was beginning to build.

Miles Davis (Cheadle) in the recording studio
Miles Davis (Cheadle) in the recording studio

AKT: Did you enjoy working on the costumes? You had different decades and you put some actors in really amazing clothes. Michael Stuhlbarg has played a lot of roles where he looks horrendous, but I think that's the top. Can you talk a bit about the costumes?

DC: Gersha Phillips.

EC: Yeah, Gersha!

DC: The Frances costumes broke the budget. And a couple of suits, you know. That's a very tricky thing when you're doing a movie at this budget level and you have a lot of extras. The boxing scene, there's 200 extras in there. All of them have to be dressed appropriately to the period, so you have to be very strategic. Where you spend money, how you spend money, favors that you are pulling, costume houses that she [Gersha] is calling up.

Grabbing things, having her army of people across the country, leaning in on her relationships to go to thrift stores and pull things - just to be very creative how she put stuff together. There's a couple of things that she had to build, like your wedding dress.

Frances Taylor: "This is a woman who was one of the original members of West Side Story."
Frances Taylor: "This is a woman who was one of the original members of West Side Story."

EC: She did, yeah.

DC: My suit. I think the first suit you see me in. I think the first dress you're in, she had to make.

EC: Yes, she did. She dyed that one.

DC: So there's a couple of times when she would come to me and was like - "This suit is $1200." And I have to spend it. You can't be Miles and walk out there looking half-assed. This thing has to be cleaned - so we're going to break the bank on this one and maybe don't get to do this over here. That's what you do when you're doing a low-budget movie.

Pamela Hirsch, one of our producers - they're playing whack-em-all. Trying to figure out how to save and how to spend. Ultimately you want to finish the movie having spent all of your contingency money. You don't want anything in the bank when you're done. There is no reason to wrap and to go - We've saved five grand! It's like, why the f… you saved five grand?

AKT: It's a very small detail, but I noticed it anyway. Miles is watching Bewitched on TV. Why, of all things, did you put Bewitched in there?

DC: There's the reality of the things you can afford, that are licensable. But that clip is amazing, that we found!

Miles Davis and Dave Brill
Miles Davis and Dave Brill

AKT: I thought there was a meaning.

DC: There was a meaning to it as well. It's Bewitched. In the clip, Endora [Agnes Moorehead] is saying something about - I think she is talking about Darren in the clip - she is talking about him being in this state of confusion. Something like, "What's going on with him?" And it is really this commentary on what's happening with Miles at that moment. And it's also just a touchstone for anybody who is over forty years old. That is in the bedrock of my past.

Bewitched is something that was after school; every day it was on. You know, Gilligan's Island, Bewitched, Partridge Family … you know you can go down the line. That was a part of iconography in that era. But in that specific clip, she [Endora] is talking to Miles! She is saying stuff about Miles and then the "Bling" - the timing of that. With him thinking that he hears Frances talking to another man. It's all in the soup.

Miles Ahead opens in the US on April 1 and in the UK on April 22.

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