Miles Davis biopic had to have a white co-star to get off the ground, says director

Don Cheadle poses during a photocall for Miles Ahead on Feb 18, 2016.
Don Cheadle poses during a photocall for Miles Ahead on Feb 18, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

BERLIN (AFP) - Don Cheadle aimed to make a biopic of Miles Davis as "explosive" as the jazz legend's music, but said on Thursday the project would not have got off the ground without crowdfunding - and a white co-star.

The African-American actor, best known from the Iron Man movies, directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in Miles Ahead which he called a decade-long "Herculean" task.

Cheadle, 51, said compiling the financing had been a major hurdle he only cleared when he raised about US$360,000 (S$500,000) on website Indiegogo, which allows artists to collect donations for projects, and hired Scottish star Ewan McGregor.

He said it was "one of the realities of the business that we are in" that films with all-black casts are thought to have little chance of distribution outside the United States and thus do not attract investment.

"There is a lot of apocryphal, not proven evidence that black films don't sell overseas," he told reporters at the Berlin film festival amid a fierce debate in Hollywood about racial diversity.

"Having a white actor in this film turned out to actually be a financial imperative."

Cheadle said it forced him to rework the script, which focuses on a period in the late 1970s in which Davis fell into a creative slump, to bring in a shady Rolling Stone reporter as a kind of foil for the "Kind of Blue" trumpet player.

"I think it works great, and particularly the fact that Ewan McGregor is the actor who is in it, I think he is fantastic in the movie. But that was a component of... allowing us to even have a budget to get the film made."

Sony Pictures Classics will be distributing the film, which comes out in the United States in April.

Miles Ahead finds the musician living as a cocaine-addled recluse in New York, unable to replicate the success of his early career standards.

Cheadle coaxes humour from Davis' sense that his best output is behind him, showing him call into a jazz radio station to correct the show host's moderation and then request him to play Solea from his 1960 album Sketches Of Spain.

"This one goes out to Mr Davis," the star-struck DJ says, drawing a big laugh at a Berlin press screening.

McGregor's journalist gets stonewalled when he tries to convince Davis to give him a lengthy interview. But he eventually gains the star's trust when he helps him recover a tape of new material stolen by a hoodlum.

The film features flashbacks to Davis' early career and his troubled marriage to his first love, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who is driven away by his drug addiction and womanising.

"That's who Miles was in his real life, he was that kind of a gangster dude, he was that kind of a tough guy in many ways," Cheadle said.

"I wanted it to be a movie that Miles Davis would want to star in. He would have laughed at it, he would've dug it and been like 'That's slick, I didn't do that - that's bull***t - but I like that'," Cheadle said, mimicking Davis' trademark hoarse growl.

"That's what I wanted - a movie that felt like the experience I have when I listen to his music."

Cheadle, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the 2005 drama Hotel Rwanda, said Davis' jazz had been the "soundtrack of his childhood" and that he learned trumpet to play the part.

"I wanted to do something explosive, exciting, that felt like a ride and felt impressionistic and free form because that's what his music does to me," he said.

Miles Ahead screened out of competition at the Berlin festival, which wraps up on Sunday.