Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool – the film

A new documentary does a generous job on Davis's career albeit with perhaps inevitable omissions

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Fans of Miles Davis may remember some grainy old footage of the trumpeter shadowboxing in a gym sometime during the mid-1960s. It’s a clip that in previous docs has been used to stress Davis’s love for the sport, or complement any mention of the album he recorded in 1970 inspired by one of its prizefighters, Jack Johnson.

Curiously, in this new film from director Stanley Nelson, the clip opens the film and reappears intermittently throughout. With little mention of Davis’s soft spot for sparring though, let alone his loud, vamp-driven Jack Johnson disc, you could read into the idea that it’s featured here to depict Davis himself as some kind of prizefighter: the Illinois boy that continually fought for equality and opportunity, felt firsthand the mental and physical scars left by racial slur and assault, battled most of his adult life with health issues aggravated by drug and drink addiction and wrestled to sustain many working and romantic relationships as a consequence of insecurity and profound paranoia.

Alternatively, the slow-mo sequence of Davis in fisticuff mode could just as easily be featured to emphasise Davis’s fearlessness and drive, or promote his sheer power as a performer. Whatever Nelson’s artistic intentions, it stands out as one of the most moving sequences of the film. The Birth Of The Cool is a deftly delivered story of an innovative artist that stood by his vision and made the music he wanted to make. It’s the cradle-to-grave journey of a jazz heavyweight whose trumpet tone alone – whether mellow, muted or mutilated by the mighty wah – remained unmistakably his, and the music he made some of the greatest filed under any genre.

Narrated by actor Carl Lumbly in a raspy, convincingly Miles-like tone, the film details the dark, troubled side of Davis, the mellow side, and how the man with the horn’s incessant horn-locking with tough critics, interfering label bosses and jazz purists (most notably into his “electric” period) led to some extraordinary decisions and directions musically. Through it all Davis pulls off what may have been his greatest achievement – the reinvention of himself, his music, and in turn, the world of music, many times over.

From his boyhood, the bop he blew with Bird, his musical adventures with Billy Eckstine and Gil Evans and his return to public performance following five crippling years in and out of hospital, horn-free and strung-out on drugs, the film offers a ringside seat to many fascinating aspects and eras of Davis’s life and career. But while there is plenty of insight like this on offer for casual fans of Miles, it’s fair to forewarn diehard fans of some disappointment when it comes to some of the continuity and finer detail.

As well as little or no reference to some key cast members in the Davis story (Bill Evans, “Cannonball” Adderley, Keith Jarrett, Teo Macero, John McLaughlin and Joe Zawinul), the film glides too quickly over significant, career-defining records like Porgy & Bess and Sketches Of Spain, Davis’s legendary residency at the Fillmore in San Francisco and the pop-level success he scored in the mid-1980s covering Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson hits.

More noticeable a flaw though is the little space given to the formation and unprecedented importance of the group once referred to as the “Mount Rushmore of jazz” – Davis’s second classic quintet (with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams) – and how crucial that band’s five years together was to the development of Davis’s rousing electric direction. From 1964 there’s some brief recounting from Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock and a reference to the Miles Smiles album before the story shifts straight to 1970, criminally failing to raise any attention to a run of more important records such as Nefertiti, Miles In The Sky and In A Silent Way, the latter a disc for many as mighty as A Kind Of Blue.

Of course, it could be reasonably argued that, given the sheer depth of Davis’s career as a whole, packing 60-plus years of a man’s life and music into two hours is an impossible task, even when you include rarely seen shots, clips and interviews with such as Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lenny White, Quincy Troupe, Quincy Jones, Marcus Miller and Davis’s first wife Frances Taylor, all spilling beans on our boy.

Surprisingly, it’s the latter’s inclusion in the film and the previously unheard stories she fondly, and often emotionally, shares here that may be the most warming and insightful element for the Davis hardcore. His romance with Paris and the actress Juliette Greco too throws out fresh footage and facts on Davis’s first trip to Europe in 1949, a tour that would not only leave a mark on Miles’s music, but  impact on his image and style into the 1950s.

In fact, it’s from the 50s on that Nelson’s imaginative fusing of vintage film and archive photography starts to really encapsulate not just an ever-evolving Davis, but the significance of social commentary, politics and popular culture impacting his act. Scratched up scenes of 42nd Street’s jazz strip, Sly & the Family Stone, Vietnam and Snow White singing Some Day My Prince Will Come add substance, charm and greater depth to the doc, as do the previously unseen scenes of Davis recording Tutu, performing live with Prince or hanging with John and Yoko.

As the film beautifully gathers momentum it’s the stunning visuals, music and informative spiel that make this film on Davis the real deal. Acknowledged moans aside, it’s a beautifully read, researched and presented film, rolled out to do what any decent movie about music should do: entice a new audience, inspire those that already dig to dig more, and address the subject well enough to nourish the needs of the most needy diehards out there. With this, Miles’s music, and maybe that opening scene in mind, Nelson’s flick packs a punch.

There is a suggestion it’ll be shown on BBC2 on 13 March. The UK theatrical run is almost complete, with two dates remaining at Hexham on 28th March and Bristol on 29th March.