6 September 2019 | gortx
Very fine Doc on Miles Davis which serves as a Biography on film
Stanley Nelson's documentary MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL attempts to be a full biography on film. That it succeeds so well, is a testament to the long time documentarian - and to the magnificence of its subject, jazz legend Miles Davis.
Nelson tells the tale in a fairly straight-forward and, largely, chronological order. From his childhood in an upper middle-class black family in Illinois to his fast rise as a teenage wonder on the trumpet to his status as one of the true pioneers of jazz. Nelson makes the wise choice of having Davis' own words 'narrate' his own story (beautifully voiced by actor Carl Lumbly). Virtually all of the music heard in the Doc is Davis' (music by other performers is specifically cited as such; too bad Nelson isn't as detailed when it comes to keeping the proper aspect ratio of existing footage).
Woven through the movie is Davis' struggle against racism, which he discovers at an early age despite his family's relative wealth. While understandable in part, Davis was also prone to resentment and violence (particularly against women -- all of his relationships seem to have ended with the women leaving). Nelson doesn't shy away from the truth here, but never dwells upon it, either.
Of course, the emphasis here is on Davis' music. And, what music the viewer gets to hear over the course of the (just under) two hours. Beginning with his work with Charlie Parker and others in the mid-40s, Davis was soon his own band leader and began recording with Gil Evans (a white Arranger with whom Davis would have a long simpatico relationship). Davis spent three semesters at Julliard, which showed his passion for the intense study of the musical form, dispelling the notion that everything in Davis' repertoire was improv. Davis was a master improvisational trumpet player, but, it came from an informed place (something he later tried to imbue in his fellow band members). Davis continued to perform right up to his passing in 1991 at 65.
One of the things that makes COOL so satisfying is that Nelson was able to reach so many people who worked with and, loved, Davis. Everyone from French Actress Juliette Gréco to former wife Frances Taylor (who practically steals the movie with her verve and bravado) to musicians Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter. Carlos Santana and Quincy Jones are also on hand to provide the perspectives of those who were influenced by his work. Using Davis' own words is invaluable, but, so is the input of those who were there to give another point of view.
The only major quibble with Nelson's Doc is that the strict birth to death structure diminishes the kind of emotional and distinctive pull that a less rigid format would have allowed. The movie was co-produced by PBS's American Masters series, which may account for that straight-forwardness (although the sometimes very blue language will have the PBS censors with their fingers on the bleep button...a lot!). A movie about jazz should be a bit looser. Still, COOL is a terrific accomplishment; Whether one is a jazz newbie or an aficionado, one will find a lot here to that satisfies.