Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is an expansive look at the life and lasting influence of the musical icon. From his early days at the forefront of the jazz revolution, to his near mythical status as a pop persona, the trumpeter was riddled with complexity. Revered for his immeasurable talent and brilliant improvisational skills, Miles Davis also had a dark side that troubled him deeply. His lifelong battle with drug and alcohol addiction led to bouts of depression and cruelty. Davis was a transformative black celebrity in an era of violent racism and subjugation. American Experience filmmaker Stanley Nelson casts a wide net in his retrospective.
Miles Davis was born in Illinois on May 26, 1926. The son of a relatively wealthy black dentist, he was not shielded from the virulent racism of the time. Davis, who’s writing, letters, and journals are voiced by Carl Lumbly, was incredibly bitter about his treatment by whites. He spent his youth in St. Louis, Missouri, where he constantly faced racial prejudice. Davis was a trumpet prodigy from the start, playing in local bands as a teenager.
Birth of the Cool then takes us on Davis’ meteoric rise in the jazz world. He played with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker, who took him to the fabled jazz clubs of New York City. Davis went to Juilliard to properly hone his musical theory, but was disgusted by their teachings of jazz as “slave” music. A tour in post war Paris was a life changing experience. He had never felt so liberated as a black man. Davis met Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and had a love affair with actress Juliette Gréco. His wife and two children in St. Louis were left behind. Miles Davis always put his music before people.
Davis’ return to America is where the film truly enlightens. It delves into his formative years becoming a superstar. He recorded Kind of Blue and made the jump to Columbia Records. His success led to a focus on image. Miles Davis was not going to be a “minstrel”. He dressed impeccably, drove luxury cars, and prided himself on his “clean” look. He was part of a new black culture awakening that refused to be defined or accept racial oppression. During this time Davis met the famous dancer, Frances Taylor.
Birth of the Cool veers from the musical focus into the personal issues that consumed Miles Davis. He became addicted to heroin, cocaine, prescription drugs, and alcohol. The drug abuse turned his cold personality violent. Davis, who grew up in a household filled with domestic abuse, beat his wives and girlfriends. His ugly behavior, jealousy, and pettiness were accepted by everyone around him. Even at his lowest points, he was someone that defined “cool”. Miles Davis was magnetic.
The sixties saw a cultural change sweep across America. Jazz was no longer the hippest music. Rock, soul, and funk became the voice of youth. Miles Davis never held the past sacred. He changed with the times, and eventually landed at the forefront of musical experimentation. Davis opened himself in the seventies. His “Kind of Blue” and “Birth of the Cool” albums defined jazz in the fifties. His 1970 masterpiece, “Bitches Brew”, heralded a new phase. Davis would lay the groundwork for new musical styles from hip hop to drum and bass, but again fell deep into addiction.
The documentary is loaded with archival footage, music, and interviews. Miles Davis knew, influenced, and worked with generations of musicians. He was constantly reinventing himself with the best young talent he could find. Birth of the Cool has greats like Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, and Carlos Santana, along with noted writers, music industry figures, and historians. There are also contributions from his wives, girlfriends, children, and nephew. They offer frank insights into his personal life. He was beloved and is remembered fondly, but not given a pass for his worst transgressions.
Stanley Nelson teaches a historical lesson on the greatness of Miles Davis. His musical legacy, style, and image is explored in great detail. Nelson unfortunately glosses over the domestic violence issues. Davis physically abused his wives and girlfriends. They speak about it, but Nelson never allows a deeper dive in their interviews. The doc becomes too concerned with hero worship. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is a production of Eagle Rock Entertainment and Firelight Pictures. It will be distributed theatrically by Abramorama and shown on PBS later this year.
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