Despite his legend, it’s a surprise that there have been so few screen projects (narrative fiction, documentary, docu-series, etc) on the life of Miles Davis, who would’ve been 92 years old last week Saturday, May 26, were he still alive.
Over the years, Shadow and Act has tracked the diminutive number of projects on the jazz icon, including the most prominent, Don Cheadle’s unconventional 2016 film which finally got made, after many years in fundraising limbo.
And still uncertain is director George Tillman Jr.’s feature which was first announced in 2011, and will be loosely based on Gregory Davis’ book, Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis (Gregory Davis being Miles Davis’ eldest son). The plan for Tillman’s project, which will be called Miles Davis, Prince of Darkness, is to produce a more conventional biopic (the producers previously mentioned Walk The Line and Ray as potential models that they’ll follow). No word on where the project currently stands, 7 years later. It’s likely dead.
As for past Miles Davis films that never moved forward, telling adapting his story for the screen has been a challenge for producers for decades. In 1993, Spike Lee and Wesley Snipes were to team up for a Miles Davis biopic, with Snipes starring, and Spike directing. Former Columbia Records chief, Walter Yetnikoff, secured rights to Davis’ autobiography, and brought Lee and Snipes onto the project which was tentatively titled Million Dollar Lips. But it stalled for reasons that aren’t public.
Yetnikoff planned to finance the entire film himself, which was to be produced by Preston Holmes and Fernando Suluchin (both associate producers of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X). Their stated goal was to keep the project independent to avoid any Hollywood studio interference. The script was to be penned by Charles Fuller, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play (which later became the award-winning film A Soldier’s Story, starring Denzel Washington).
Producer Holmes said in 1996 that Raging Bull and Amadeus were models they were looking at for their Miles Davis film. Interesting mix certainly.
At the time (when the project was first announced in 1993), Snipes was seemingly on his way to A-list actor status, coming off hits like Passenger 57, White Men Can’t Jump, New Jack City, and 2 Spike Lee joints in Jungle Fever (which he starred in) and Mo’ Better Blues (which was Denzel Washington’s show, but Snipes played a pivotal role). So his rising star during those years, as well as his connection to Spike Lee, likely helped support his casting in Yetnikoff’s Miles Davis project.
You’ll find further information on the forgotten Spike Lee/Wesley Snipes attempt in the book The Miles Davis Reader.
No official Davis Estate-backed comprehensive film on the man’s life has ever been produced. The family was behind Don Cheadle’s unconventional take, although it wasn’t a biopic, instead mixing reality and fiction to tell a “gangster” tale (as Cheadle put it) that focused on a very specific period in Davis’ life. An encyclopedic chronicling (whether as a multi-episode TV series, or a feature film – documentary or historical fiction) remains ostensibly fanciful, even 27 years since Davis’ death in 1991.
But that error might be corrected thanks to veteran, award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities), who we’ve just learned is currently in production on what will apparently be his next film – a documentary on Miles Davis.
A new Stanley Nelson conversation with Indiewire, published yesterday, includes mention of this project, although details aren’t provided. But further digging uncovered an earlier reference, buried in a December 2017 interview in The St. Augustine Record (FL) with Davis’ nephew and executor of his estate, Vince Wilburn, Jr., who’s also bandleader of the Miles Electric Band, which was formed in the winter of 2011 and is comprised of two generations of players, including some of Davis’ contemporaries. Wilburn, Jr. and the Davis estate also backed Cheadle’s 2016 film. In fact he (and the rest of the Davis family) sought Cheadle for that project.
In the December 2017 St. Augustine Record interview, Wilburn, Jr. shared the following at the very end of the article: “We’re doing a new documentary on Uncle Miles with a guy named Stanley Nelson, I’m doing a few new records and we’re talking about a new movie in the works… We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire…”
Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer details either, although the Indiewire piece does say that the film is currently in post-production. But we don’t know much else – including how comprehensive it is, what exactly fans can expect, when it’s expected to premiere, who else of note might be involved in the production, etc. And, after an involved search, I couldn’t find any other useful mentions of the project online, so this is all the info we have at this time.
But if Nelson is currently in post-production, one can assume that it’s nearing completion and will likely make it s world premiere on the film festival circuit, with Sundance 2019 as a strong possibility. Many of Nelson’s films have premiered at that festival; even Cheadle’s Miles Ahead screened at Sundance in 2016. So a 2019 Sundance Film Festival birth is very likely.