Miles Davis, the great and the least great of the documentary

Miles Davis was a genius. Miles Davis was also a bona fide jerk. Again, he was a genius.

This genius is on full display in the documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” a well-done account of the man’s accomplishments and his jerks. If director Stanley Nelson is leaning more towards directing, well, who wants to watch a jerk documentary?

This jolt appears to have involved domestic violence, substance abuse, and violence in general. Miles was born into a wealthy family, achieved fame and success early on, and seemed to expect special treatment throughout his life. He was undoubtedly influenced by his parents’ tumultuous relationship, and an initial stay in a relatively color-blind Paris opened his eyes to American racism. Thus, his jerkiness had undeniable roots.

But oh, the music. During the 1950s and 60s, Davis changed the nature of jazz with his sweet-sounding horn, his encouragement of improvisation and yes, his composure. The film dwells on his work with John Coltrane, his faith in his bandmates to match his own musical heights, and his immense popularity.

The film uses talking head interviews (friends, lovers, parents, sidemen), a generous number of taped performances, and an eerie voiceover of Miles’ own words by Carl Lumbly. It highlights – appropriately – classics like “Sketches of Spain”, “Miles Ahead” and “Kind of Blue”. He also tries to equate this brilliant period with later slimes, but the videotape, as they say, does not lie. The dude was amazing for a few decades; that should be enough.

The man’s influence on almost all of jazz is undeniable and many of the young musicians he honored are now great masters. Watch this, then put on “Kind of Blue” and marvel at the beauty, the invention and, yes, the cool.

“Miles Davis: Birth of Cool”



Operating time” 115 minutes