As one of Miles Davis’ bandmates describes in “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” a Davis performance is like a chemistry experiment. Every night, the band took the stage to perform a controlled explosion, with Davis as the lead chemist: a little danger and a lot of precision. It’s just one of many nicknames given to Davis over the years. He was a man known for being experimental, fashionable, brilliant. As musicologist Tammy L. Kernodle says in the film, Davis himself was “the personification of cool.”
The film follows Davis’ life from his early days in East St. Louis until his death in 1991 at the age of 65. Written with Davis’ own music, there’s an in-depth study of the musician’s various eras – from his early days as a student of Juilliard to his rise with the eponymous Birth of cool album and finally, his later years incorporating electronic and funk elements into his work. Considerable attention is given to how Davis combined both his technical training and the emotional highs of jazz, creating a completely innovative and distinct style of trumpet playing. In this sense, the film strikes a balance between a pure biography and a showcase of Davis’ musical talent.
The film draws on archival footage, interviews with industry peers, loved ones and music experts, as well as passages from Davis’ autobiography – read by the actor Carl Lumbly in an imitation of the trumpeter’s instantly recognizable rasp. Surprisingly, one of the best aspects of the movie isn’t about Davis himself. The appearances of Davis’ first wife, Frances Taylor, are scene stealers – both in her descriptions of her time with Davis and her career as a dancer and actress (before Davis relegated her to the role of his housewife). Taylor, who passed away in 2018, deserves a documentary of her own as well as the respect she deserves as an artist — not just a muse.
An excellent documentary overall, “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” transcends some of the pitfalls of biographical work. Director Stanley Nelson does not present the film as an outright homage; instead, it takes the time to delve into the more mercurial aspects of Davis’ personality, including his perpetration of domestic violence, particularly inflicted on Taylor. Coming out of this film, the sizzle of Davis’ inherent freshness is felt through and through, as is his undeniable talent and influence, but he offers a fuller portrait of the man behind the mystique.
Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].