Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson's new film "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" looks at Miles Davis'enduring influence: The trumpeter, composer, and bandleader practically defined jazz in his own image as the ultimate in cool sophistication that never stopped innovating.
Coming in at just under two hours, "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" functions as a primer rather than a deep dive. On these terms, Nelson does a fine job of compressing Davis' nearly 50-year career (1944-1991), following some personal history context. Mostly though, "Birth of the Cool" hurtles through the "milestones" of Davis' career, touching on his key romantic relationships and struggles with addiction.
Actor Carl Lumbly (TV's "Alias") ably performs excerpts from Davis' 1989 "Miles: The Autobiography" (written with Quincy Troupe, one of the film's interview subjects). Lumbly adopts Davis' trademark rasp, as do nearly all of the interview subjects who knew Davis personally when they anecdotally recount Davis' remarks. How Davis wound up with that rasp also gets recounted here by a friend who remembers Davis' impatience to talk after surgery to remove polyps from his larynx (although no mention is made of the studio yelling match that sealed the deal).
The rest of Nelson's construction strings together photos, audio, film and video of Davis, sometimes on the move but usually performing on a stage or in a studio. "Birth of the Cool" proves most valuable by gathering a number of Miles' friends, lovers, musical collaborators, admirers and musicologists -- many of whom are getting up in years -- to share their recollections and perspectives on Davis, his musicality and his personality. Participants include Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, Juliette Gréco, Frances Taylor Davis, Betty Davis, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Clive Davis. Arguably Davis' most important collaborator, Gil Evans, is the film's only archival interview.
The talking heads can be incisive in explaining Davis' towering artistic presence. A brilliant improviser, he also had a rock-solid theoretical foundation, partly laid by day at Juilliard ("I wanted to see what was going on in all of music") as he galvanized New York's 52nd St. jazz scene by night. Nelson also recognizes the importance of Davis' 1949 trip to Paris, which he wrote "changed the way I looked at things forever." The film's later passages demonstrate how Davis stayed on music's cutting edge by recruiting young performers for his bands and synthesizing with his own limber style the musical trends of any given moment, pushing boundaries in the process.
Co-produced by PBS' American Masters Pictures, "Birth of the Cool" hits the key points in familiar fashion, from childhood friends' observations to the young artist gigging with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to his 1957 foray into film composing (for Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows") to his 1959 police assault to his physical abuse of women while under the influence of a powerful drug and alcohol cocktail. Some of the most interesting moments, though, involve experts trying to explain in words Davis' musical genius, his sensual, lyrical style that was "romantic without being sentimental."
Davis aficionados will probably walk away from this film feeling undernourished; It serves better to introduce young audiences to a musical master and to rekindle the desire to luxuriate in Davis' catalog. As good a job as Lumbly does, "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" also feels incomplete without more footage of Davis speaking for himself on camera. Still, Davis never expressed himself more eloquently than he did through his horn, and "Birth of the Cool" pulses with that unmistakable Miles Davis sound.