Between the Grooves with Philip Booth

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Trumpet Men on the Big Screen: Dueling Miles Davis Biopics?; and a Louis Armstrong Flick

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It’s been common knowledge, for a little while, that Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, the Ocean’s Eleven films) is directing and starring in the Miles Davis biopic, which is being produced by Miles’ nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr. Wilburn played drums with the trumpeter and lived with him for three years beginning in 1984.

Now comes encouraging news that Herbie Hancock, pianist for Miles’ second great quintet, is scoring the film, and Cheadle is co-writing the script. That’s according to an interview with Wilburn and Erin Davis, Miles’ youngest son, published online at YRB.com.

Wilburn, as quoted by YRB, said: “We’re in the process of OK’ing the script with a new writer. Don didn’t like the other writer that was attached to the movie, so there’s a new writer named Steven Vegelman that Don’s writing with. Once is the script is OK’d by the family, then we go into production.”

The new writer referred to in the YRB story may be Steven Baigelman, who did the screenplays for Feeling Minnesota and My Brother’s Keeper, and is working on the forthcoming James Brown biopic.

According to the Internet Movie Database, the film — yet to be titled — is “in development” for 2011, and the latest chapter in its history stretches back to a treatment/outline that was prepared in April 2006. Cheadle is listed as director/producer, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (both of whom worked together on Ali and Nixon) as writers, and  Porter and Wilburn as producers. Wilkinson and Rivele are also listed as exec producers, along with Cary Brokaw.

The film is being produced by Cheadle’s production company, Crescendo Prods., which in November 2008 inked a “two-year, first-look” deal with Overture Films.

Way back in 1993, Wesley Snipes was slated to play Miles. And in 2006, Darryl Porter, general manager of the Miles Davis Estate, told Jazz Times that Antoine Fuqua would be directing the biopic.

Which era of Miles’ long career will be the focus of the film? Two hints, so far, both suggesting an ’80s emphasis —  Wilburn’s involvement, and the fact that IMDB lists rookie Kevin Navayne (seen in one episode each of “Army Wives” and “CSI:NY”) as the actor who will portray Marcus Miller, the bassist/producer who worked with Miles from 1985 until the trumpeter’s death in 1991.

Earlier this month, Cheadle told Vibe that his film is on the verge of beginning production. “In my attempt to tell the story, I’m not trying to do some reverential all-of-us-bow-down-to-Miles-the-icon. I’m trying to present him as a man. I’m trying to make a movie that Miles Davis would want to make.”

He also spoke to Parade magazine about his hopes for the movie: “It’s been a long time coming, but we’re working on the script right now,” Cheadle said for a story dated March 4, the same day that the Vibe piece was published. I think it will happen. I love Miles, but you have to take everything he says with a grain of salt. He would tell a long story, and someone would go, ‘That’s amazing. Did that happen?’ He’d reply, ‘I don’t f— know. You figure it out.’ He wasn’t interested in what you thought about him. He was like, ‘I’m about the music. Deal with that.’ Capturing the essence of that man is a challenge.”

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a)the Cheadle film indeed will get made, and b)Miles’ story won’t be overtly Hollywood-ized. In the case of Miles Davis, the truth about his life is stranger, and more interesting, than any fiction that could be tacked on for dramatic purposes.

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Miles’ offspring have experienced at least some degree of conflict, as his sons Gregory and Miles IV reportedly were excluded from his will. Meanwhile, his estate is being handled by Miles Davis Properties, LLC, a group that includes Erin Davis, Wilburn, Miles daughter Cheryl and his brother-in-law Vince Wilburn Sr.

That conflict may be played out on the big screen, in terms of competing visions of Miles’ life: Another Davis biopic, also listed by IMDB as “in development” for 2011, is Dark Magus: The Miles Davis Story, adapted from Gregory’s 2006 book “Dark Magus: The Jekyll & Hyde Life of Miles Davis.”

Dark Magus is being scripted by Isaac Fergusson, and produced by Ged Dickersin and Nick Raynes, according to IMDB, in an entry last updated on Oct. 9. The production company: Davis Raynes Productions Inc.

The New York Post, on Oct. 2, 2008, had this to say about the Dark Magus film: “…Nick Davis Raynes is a well-mannered movie producer who just optioned the rights to “Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis,” by the jazz great’s son, Gregory Davis. “I’m a huge fan of Miles Davis. We plan to tell his true story and preserve his legacy,” Raynes told Page Six. Gregory was the only son who traveled with Miles on tour, but then had to sue his father’s estate because he was left out of his will. Besides the lead role, there will be juicy parts playing Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. “Miles was a huge mentor to Hendrix,” Raynes said.”

Interesting side note to all of this: Earlier this year, rapper Snoop Dogg said that he wanted to play Miles, according to a blog called, simply, The Miles Davis Movie. The blog isn’t officially affiliated with the Cheadle movie, or any other film.

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Forest Whitaker, who played Charlie Parker in 1988’s Bird, tries on another jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, in What a Wonderful World, scheduled for release sometimes next year. Whitaker, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, is also directing the film, from a script written by veteran screenwriter Ronald Bass (Amelia, Entrapment, Snow Falling on Cedars, Dangerous Minds, Rain Man).

The Armstrong movie, naturally, will be shot in New Orleans. Last week, Whitaker said that he’s spending a year learning to play trumpet and preparing for the role, according to an item posted online at AceShowbiz.

Whitaker also said that the film won’t shy away from Armstrong’s passion for marijuana.

“He smoked weed every day and it’s in the movie where he wrote to the president to try and make it legal. We will have that in the film.”

The movie is the fourth feature film to be helmed by Whitaker, who made his directorial debut with 1995’s Waiting to Exhale.

Why direct the Armstrong film? I’d guess that it stems in part from Whitaker’s apparent recent love affair with New Orleans. In recent years, he’s acted in several films set or partly set there, including Hurricane Season and My Own Love Song.

Here’s what he told Variety, a couple of years ago, according to a story published at Nola.com: “Armstrong left a monumental mark on our lives and our culture. He lived an amazing life and, through his art, shifted the way music was played and would be heard after him, not just here in the U.S. but all over the world.”

Satchmo Summerfest, held every summer in New Orleans, is an annual interntaional focal point for all things Louis Armstrong. This year’s event, again organized by the same group that produces the French Quarter Fest, will be held in the steamy season – Aug. 5-8. For more information, click here.

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