Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is the type of documentary that’s better suited to TV screens than the cinematic circuit of a film festival. It’s a serviceable and conventional take on Miles Davis with your traditional yet academic tick box inclusion of talking heads, narration and interviews. But for a documentary that’s supposed to provide insight and celebrate a life and career of a pioneer, an innovator, someone who dared to challenge the conventions of music, stylistically lacks the imagination that its subject matter deserved.
Director Stanley Nelson treats the documentary with kids gloves, safely navigating a whistle-stop, textbook tour through his career milestones and musical accomplishments. At times it tries to paint a comprehensive fifty-year picture of the musical genius. Other times, it consists of missed opportunities that would have drawn more profound and more complex parallels between his inner demons and his experimental search for creative perfection.
It’s not surprising when Miles Davis was such an eclectic character. A two-hour documentary doesn’t feel adequate enough to explore a lifetime of work, his constant shift with artistic tastes and the self-destructive tendencies towards fame with all of its fuelling mix of depression, drugs and alcohol. Obvious shortcomings aside, Nelson, for the most part, provides a chronological outlook, using jazz as a juxtaposing gateway alongside cultural points in history. As rudimentary as you can get, he examines Miles’ early beginnings of wealth (that didn’t protect him from Jim Crow laws, segregation and racism), playing in the jazz clubs on 52nd Street with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, his film score improv sessions on Elevator to the Gallows to the notable album releases throughout his career until his subsequent death in 1991. With so much ground to cover, the documentary is already guilty for its lack of focus and natural restraint, not helped by its straight-forward editing style that maintains the same monotone energy throughout and its dependence on providing a broad-stroke commentary.
While it doesn’t sugar coat the tortured soul he was, it doesn’t leave enough dialogue to capture the man behind the trumpet, particularly how the female voices in his life were represented. The prominent women often found themselves neglected out of the conversation, used as a dramatic insertion but never paused long enough to emotionally solidify their accounts or connect them as a whole. The documentary recount tales of his first childhood sweetheart (who he fathered two kids while at Julliard), domestic abuse, how his first wife Frances Taylor was stopped from doing the theatrical production of West Side Story (because of Miles’ jealousy citing how a woman’s place belongs at home) to his fashion upgrade during the 70s, ditching the sophisticated, suit and tie look for the funkadelic Woodstock attire that oversaw his popular album release Bitches Brew. But before it could make some use of their subsequent influence or its tumultuous aftermath, it jarringly refuses to delve deeper opting to continue its tunnel-vision message of “but hey, Miles was a great musician because he was all about that jazz”.
It’s somewhat a little tone-deaf, stopping the documentary from reaching a solemn place of total appreciation that equally reconciles the radical genius with the fully contextualised human being that it tries to convey, seemingly lost amongst its constant, rapid shift between its lop-sided lean on his music and the next Wikipedia-style entry in his story.
As such its limitations, it’s not a documentary without merit. Carl Lumbly’s impersonated voice for Miles adds a much-needed personal touch, capturing his raspy voice that expresses vulnerability as well as accountability of his actions, moods and regrets. The inclusion of Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana and Quincy Jones help add validity, sharing their funny anecdotes, experiences and the contributing impact Miles had on the music industry. But it’s Miles’ meticulous articulation of music that stands out, continually ‘fixing the music’ throughout his performances to achieve uniqueness, his progressive views on putting Frances Taylor on the album cover to Someday My Prince Will Come, while pushing the boundaries that were a response to the evolving landscape to keep jazz relevant throughout the 20th Century.
However, having seen Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me, Amazing Grace and Hitsville: The Making of Motown, despite their shortcomings, they still left a distinct yet euphoric impression to revisit its musical material. Perhaps it is because Miles is not in the public conscious enough. The closest to a mainstream depiction is Miles Ahead starring Don Cheadle and Ewan McGregor. But Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool pales in comparison, which is a shame, leaving it in a place of glancing curiosity that appreciates the craft but forgot to explore its soul. It understands its significance but doesn’t delve deeply into its resonance that might spark that leap towards a Spotify playlist.
Miles Davis was a complex, ‘larger than life’ personality, and the documentary makes an admirable effort to summarise his life, it just deserved more than this footnote summary.
MILES DAVIS screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details.