Movie Review: Stanley Nelson’s “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” reintroduces the musician to audiences
Music and Society Editor
There are few figures in music who are as timeless or legendary as Miles Davis. Davis, having attained a near-mythological status, is known for his volatile temper, gravelly voice and above all, musical genius. His career spanned half a century and his ability to reach diverse audiences was remarkable. Like thousands of others, he grabbed my hand and led me to the amorphous world of jazz in all its possibility with the opening notes of his 1959 masterpiece “Kind of Blue” when I was a young teenager.
The longevity of his career and continued fan adoration was evident in the electric atmosphere of anticipation at the Parkway Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland on May 9. Premiering was acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” documentary: an official selection of the annual Maryland Film Festival. Nelson is an accomplished director — a MacArthur “Genius” fellow and recipient of the National Medal in the Humanities from President Barack Obama. His films are concerned with portraying the African American experience and he tries to shed new light on familiar topics.
“Birth of the Cool” was a passion project of Nelson’s, taking over two years to film, edit and release. Watching the finished product, it was evident that the film’s creation was an intense labor of love and accomplished its goal of painting a thorough and insightful portrait of Miles Davis’ life.
The opening sequence included rare archival 16mm footage of Miles Davis boxing, giving an ominously powerful sense of his finesse as well as the unbridled rage felt throughout his life. Cal Lumbly’s convincing narration, reading from Davis’ autobiography while impersonating his voice, coursed through the film and brought his voice and words to life, contextualizing the images onscreen.
The film told Davis’ life in chronological order starting from his childhood in East St. Louis to his arrival at New York City’s 52nd Street to his return to music in the 1980s. Splitting up each era and giving year markers were brilliant, fastly edited montages of pop culture footage that collided with barrages of Davis’ music, radiating vibrancy and conveying drastic change. Overall, the film expertly used interviews with historians, contemporaries and figures in Davis’ life, including the hilarious and moving words of his ex-wife Frances Taylor Davis.
The film’s thoroughness and depth was simply stunning. As a fairly knowledgeable Davis fan myself, I left feeling like I had just been reintroduced him, learning of his love for painting, friendship with Prince and encounter with police brutality that jaded his outlook on the world for the better part of his life.
What was so commendable about “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” was its ability to look behind the veneer of Davis’ cult of personality and delve past the mythology to get to the heart of the man. Nelson examined and acknowledged the contradictions of his life, in that he created some of the most beautiful music of all time, but also had a dark side with a nasty temper and abusive behavior. Even though the film addressed his misogyny, drug addiction, depression and anger issues, it did so in a respectful and objective light, letting Davis’ own words and the words of the interviews speak for themselves.
Committed to letting narratives and anecdotes shape the Miles Davis story, Stanley Nelson spoke after the film as part of a panel with Gary Bartz, a saxophonist who played with Miles in the 1980s, and Todd Barkan, the former manager of Keystone Korner in San Francisco and friend of Miles. Both Bartz and Barkan spoke of Davis’ generosity and his uncompromising passion for music — the driving force of his life. They agreed that watching the movie felt like a family reunion and they reminisced about their time with him fondly.
In an especially moving segment near the end of the film, Frances Davis poignantly said, “I don’t forget. I don’t regret. But I still love.” This sentiment of admiration with acknowledgement of faults was one that remained true in the overall message of the documentary.
“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” is a powerful and definitive document that humanizes the icon, testifying to his genius and personal complexity that shaped the face of jazz and all of modern music.