When Ensemble Theater Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers came to Cincinnati from Los Angeles, she thought she’d left her feature film casting days behind. Nope. As she left Cincinnati’s premiere screening of Miles Ahead Saturday night (where her casting credit appears at the beginning of the film) she noted that all but nine roles in the movie were cast locally. “We were still working on Carol when we got the call about Miles Ahead,” she said, her voice still vibrating with excitement.
In Los Angeles, where snazzy, tightly scripted red carpet roll-outs are commonplace, Saturday’s event may have felt like just another professional obligation standing in the way of Elite Eight viewing. But in Cincinnati the evening was as bubbly as the Champagne being poured in the lobby of the Esquire Theater. All the boxes were ticked: red carpet, velvet ropes, publicity shutterbugs, local celebs, city bigwigs—even the clear, temperate weather seemed to come from central casting—and then there was Miles Davis himself, in the form of Miles Ahead cowriter, producer, director, and star Don Cheadle, who thanked Cincinnati for “opening its arms to us and making this such an amazing experience.”
For a movie set in New York, Miles Ahead is bursting with local flavor. The biopic was shot entirely on location in Cincinnati in 2014, and lassoed a wide range of local talent, many of whom happily made the trek up the red carpet outside Clifton’s Esquire Theater. They included local musicians J.T. Thigpen, Joshua Jessen, and Yemi Oyediran, who appear in the film as Paul Chambers, Bill Evans, and Philly Joe Jones, respectively. Thigpen’s work on Miles Ahead has led to roles in two more Cincinnati-shot projects: Marauders, starring Bruce Willis, and Tiger with Mickey Rourke. You can catch Thigpen gigging around town regularly with the Sly Band (they play Jag’s Friday night) but you can also see him playing New Orleans–style funk and soul with the Po Boys at Northside Tavern April 10.
Former Q102 DJ Brian Douglas stopped for media photos along the red carpet. Douglas is the film’s Cinderella story: He was the on-set publicity photographer for Miles Ahead; his photo of Don Cheadle as Miles Davis has become the movie’s iconic poster image. Douglas, who spent 30 years in commercial radio before leaving Q102 last fall to pursue photography full-time, now has a slate of projects to his credit, including 478, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the La Grange, Kentucky, shoot of JL Ranch with Jon Voight. Douglas got a shout out from Cheadle during the Q&A session that kicked off the after-party at The Transept on Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine. “Miles Ahead was my first film. Now I’ve done 10,” said Douglas. “I’m so grateful. Who would have thought I’d have a career change like this at my age?”
Other local luminaries attending the event were: Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, Assistant City Manager John Juech, State Representative Alicia Reece, and Mayor John Cranley (who presented Cheadle with the key to the city at the event). Lots of people spiffed up for the evening, but it was the arrival of smartly attired chef Jean-Robert de Cavel and his wife, Annette, that seemed to signal party-on: Jean-Robert wore a floral sport coat with a camouflage pocket square and Annette wore a pair of splashy print leggings. Miles Davis, himself a clotheshorse, would undoubtedly have been pleased.
Set in 1979, Miles Ahead uses a fallow period in Davis’s life to tell a story that depicts the spirit, rather than the letter of the legendary trumpeter’s life. Eagle-eyed viewers will catch locations in Oakley (including a former church-turned-residence that served as Davis’s New York City home), Over-the-Rhine, and Northside, as well as a cameo by former City Councilman Chris Bortz. Set Decorator Helen Britten was not at Saturday’s premiere, but said she relied on a number of local retailers to achieve the film’s period look. “Cincinnati has fabulous vendors,” she said via e-mail, citing Mainly Art, Leftcoast Modern, Solway Gallery, Riverside Antique Mall, Grand Antique Mall, and Mill End.
During the Q&A at The Transept, Cheadle and producer Pamela Hirsch both cited the tax incentives as the primary lure to shoot in Cincinnati, but they said the breadth of locations and support here sealed the deal. While Cheadle noted that two years ago Cincinnati was a city “still getting its legs under it” as a film production town, he heaped praise on Cincinnati Film Office director Kristen Schlotman’s shepherding of his project. “Kristen was our guide and really introduced us to the city, “ he said. With the experience of both Carol and Miles Ahead in the bank, Cincinnati has as good a shot as any to become a film town on par with Albuquerque or Toronto. “We’ve all grown significantly and could probably support two major motion pictures at once,” said Schlotman when I reached her by phone on Monday. “We didn’t have Teamsters before. Now we have a Captain. We didn’t have a motion picture caterer before, and now Salvador and Son are here. We want to be a global destination.”
When asked on Saturday what’s next for him directorially, Cheadle said there might be another project with Miles Ahead cowriter Steve Baigelman, and added, “I was driving around tonight, thinking maybe we should come back here.” Cue crowd roar. “We had a great experience,” said Cheadle. “Everyone brought us into the fold. We feel very honored and lucky to have been able to come and shoot our film here. Pretty soon the world is going to see Cincinnati through that lens.”