With curly tresses and the ’70s wardrobe, Don Cheadle is Miles Davis in Miles Ahead.
But he told PEOPLE the transformation had to take place fast. “I didn’t have tons of time,” said the actor who not only played Davis, but also directed the film. “A lot of times, we were doing meetings in the trailer while we were doing hair and makeup. The clothes helped, they were very cool. The hair was an applique.”
As for creating the raspy voice, “You just work on it,” indicated Cheadle at the Cinema Society and Ketel One screening of the film at the Metrograph in New York. “Listen to it back.” Bourbon “helps,” he said. But it was Davis’s humor that made the man come alive for Cheadle, “There were a set of twins around related to one of the musicians,” Cheadle noted from his extensive research, “and he called them ‘same thing.’ He never bothered to learn their names.”
Emayatzy Corinealdi, who played Davis’s wife, Francis Taylor, onscreen, indicated that it was easy for Cheadle to portray the ladies’ man. “Don has that charm,” she said. And she indicated that early on in the shooting, he kept the airy voice even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Cheadle has credited Davis’s real life nephew, Vince Wilburn, with picking him to portray his famous uncle. “I had seen him in Devil in a Blue Dress playing a character called Mouse,” said Wilburn at the Metrograph. “And he just jumped off the screen.”
“When I was a kid, I played drums with my uncle, he bought me a Ludwig kit, and then a Yamaha, and I was around him like a sponge,” Wilburn continued. “And my cousin Erin [Davis’s son] and I went to set, and when we got there, I started crying. I said, ‘Don’s got it.’ It was incredible.”
“I knew him very well,” mentioned fellow artist Tony Bennett. “He was just a great artist, and he loved to paint. He heard that I painted, and we happened to be in the same hotel in L.A. once, so he said, ‘Paint my hand.’ So I painted his hand. And every time I did a sketch for him, he’d say, ‘Shit . . . ‘ We were good friends.”
“I never met him as far as I know,” Roger Waters of Pink Floyd told PEOPLE at the theater. “But almost every woman in my life had, as I recall. He was a serious ladies man. Who could resist. Kind of Blue was my favorite album. His music for Lift to the Scaffold was incredible.”
“When I was 15, I lived with him,” recalled Erin Davis, the jazz musician’s son. “I moved into his house in Malibu and he taught me about manhood. I used to go on the road with him up until he passed away. It is one thing to teach you about riding a bike and catching a football, but he taught me about poise, how to dress, putting yourself together, how to talk to girls. Don gets it completely right. When I got to the set, somebody handed me some headphones and I heard my Dad’s voice coming out of the headphones, and I choked up for sure.”
Cheryl Davis, Miles Davis’s daughter, seeing the movie for the third time, found the period depicted, with her father strung out on cocaine and reclusive, more difficult to view. “Francis was a good stepmother,” she said of the marriage depicted onscreen. “I survived that. I’m okay. I have a Masters degree in child development, a son who graduated from law school, a grandchild who is on the honor role. Don Cheadle did a good job, but it’s like seeing your father up on the screen doing those things.”
“Still, I have lots of happy memories,” she continued. “He would smell like tobacco and leather. And when he came in the door from Europe, he’d say, ‘Put your hands in my pockets, and he had candy for us.”
What was totally accurate in the story? “When he punched that man who kept bothering him, the one who had the bodyguard,” she said. “My father always made sure he got his money for his work. That’s why he had a home in Malibu, he had horses, he had a condo overlooking central park. He had Maseratis and Ferraris when he wanted them. And I get paid for my work, too.”