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Miles Davis – Birth of the Cool

An uptempo chronicle of a musical and style icon


Birth of the Cool from documentarian Stanley Nelson is a truly cradle-to-grave chronicle of Miles Davis’ life, beginning with his birth in 1926 and ending with his death in 1991. Mixing live footage, extensive interviews with friends, family, and fellow musicians, and excerpts from his autobiography (read by actor Carl Lumbly), the film moves briskly through Davis’ life. Each era is introduced via a montage of stock footage (flappers and Ford assembly lines for 1926, hippies and protests for 1969), an overused device that can be somewhat forgiven in light of the film’s exuberance for its subject. This consistently exuberant pacing allows time for an impressive spread of interviewees, running the gamut from critics to writers to fellow musicians like Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, and Quincy Jones, all of whom give necessary context and depth to Davis’ story. The film also features hundreds of still photographs, the best of which (particularly the black-and-white photos of his time in Paris alongside French luminaries) are works of art in their own right.

Birth of the Cool is the title of Davis’ 1957 album for Blue Note, and makes an apt title for a film that often seems as much about Davis’ style as his music. Like David Bowie, Miles Davis was someone for whom style and music were inseparable. His early career saw him exclusively in impeccable hand-tailored clothes, which transitioned into wilder colors and clothes during the funk-fusion Bitches Brew era. All along, as numerous interviewees in the film point out, his style embodied a bold and unapologetic blackness, equal parts celebration and defiance for someone trying to escape the “racist-to-the-bone” East St. Louis of his childhood by defiantly carving out his place in the world. As his stardom grew and he became a coveted artist, he extended this stylistic influence to his album covers, demanding they feature African-American subjects – be they him or a variety of beautiful women.

Despite its celebration of his style, the film is at its best when it focuses more closely on Davis’ music and parses what made him truly unique as a composer, bandleader, and musician. Musicians who played alongside him provide some of the film’s most beautiful moments – Herbie Hancock describing his notes as “stones skipping across a pond”, Ron Carter describing him as a “head chemist” overseeing a lab – but the accompanying live footage often goes by too quickly to leave a lasting impression. The film’s bebop-inflected pacing also works against itself in sections covering Davis’ darker aspects, in particular his violent and controlling behavior toward women. Frances Davis, his wife from 1960-68 (who was cast in the original West Side Story until he demanded she quit to become a homemaker), describes his descent into drug-fueled instability, which increasingly resulted in jealous outbursts and outright violence.

While the film doesn’t shy away from these darker events, including Davis’ childhood experience of his father’s violence toward his mother and his harrowing beating and arrest after a confrontation with a police officer, it moves too quickly to give these heavy subjects their due. Ultimately, the film touches on numerous many aspects of Davis’ life without digging too deeply into any of them. What is ultimately underrepresented in this approach is the music, which often feels more like soundtrack than subject. As a film about Miles Davis, the style icon and trailblazer, Birth of the Cool is entertaining and informative. As a chronicle of an iconic musician, it often uses discussions of Davis’ music in lieu of the music itself, and as interesting and multifaceted as they may be, they’re no substitute for the real thing.

John Peck


USA 2019, 113 min
Language: English
Genre: Documentary, Music Films
Director: Stanley Nelson
Montage: Lewis Erskine, Natasha Livia Mottola, Yusuf Kapadia
Music: Miles Davis
Distributor: Piece of Magic Entertainment
Release: 02.01.2020

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