Titled after the landmark 1957 album, Stanley Nelson’s rich and comprehensive documentary captures the multiple facets of Miles Davis’ life. Interested in understanding both the man and “the musical noise called jazz”, according to Walter Cronkite, Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool is narrated by Davis, as Nelson has drafted actor Carl Lumbly to read segments from Davis’ blisteringly candid autobiography in the musician’s raspy voice. It’s a canny device that serves as a constant throughout, as we follow Davis from Juilliard School to the euphoria of post-war Paris, where he “understood that not all white people were the same”, and the return to America where he is once again confronted with “the bullshit white people put black people through”.
Its chronological structure and talking heads feel familiar, but Nelson’s work still stands out because it is so well-researched and sharply put together. It’s a deep dive into the jazz legend’s singular career which never falls into easy hagiography and serves as an engrossing portrait of deeply entrenched racism in the US. It also examines the role of the women in Davis’ life, with Frances Taylor providing both humorous asides and a darker insight into her abusive husband’s demons. Unlike Nick Broomfield’s underwhelming and disjointed documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love, which purported to give a new insight into a unique artist via his muse’s gaze, this film radiates mood and passion while giving the women at the centre of Davis’ life the spotlight and time they deserve.
Best of all, you don’t have to be a jazz fiend or a trumpethead to appreciate this captivating doc. As for those who know their Kind Of Blue from their Bitches Brew, this nuanced look at a familiar artist remains essential viewing.
Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool | Directed by Stanley Nelson (US, 2019). Starts Jan 2.
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