Full Frame Review: Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool

Miles Davis is jazz. If you only own a handful of jazz albums, odds are his Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain are in the mix. And if you have a 100 jazz albums, most of that collection could cover his ever evolving career. He revolutionized the sound of jazz at least three times. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool gives a portrait of the iconic man with a trumpet that could melt hearts or infuriate fans.

The documentary will be airing as part of PBS’ American Masters series and as such, has the texture of other films produced for the show. Historians, critics as well as folks who knew Miles keep the narrative on track so that viewers don’t get lost in the imagery or left confused by the timeline. The movie follows Miles Davis from his childhood as the son of dentist in Alton, Illinois. He did not grow up in the poverty as many of his peers. He was able to roam through the woods and listen to nature to get inspiration for his trumpet playing. He’s start to get a name from his trumpet playing by sitting in with legends such as Charlie Parker when the came to St. Louis. This talent took Miles to Julliard in New York City to study music. This academic approach didn’t last long as Miles found himself on stage at clubs in downtown and quickly making a name for himself. In 1949 he creates the cool sound with The Birth of the Cool sessions with a nonet and Gil Evans working the charts. While the singles weren’t a massive success commercially, they established Miles as someone willing to go beyond Bop. Around this time we learn two things about Miles that aren’t beautiful: drugs and his treatment women.

Director Stanley Nelson does not skip the fact that Miles was abusive as a husband and boyfriend. He had two kids with his girlfriend back home and pretty much treated her horrible when she came to New York City with the kids. During his 1950s prime, he met and married actress-dancer Frances Taylor. They are easily Manhattan royalty. Things begin to go bad when Miles has her quit a prize role in West Side Story on Broadway. He knocks her out one night after she says that Quincy Jones is a good looking guy. He forces her to become a housewife and raise his kids even though she has zero experience cooking. Frances Taylor talks about the relationship in both its glory, frustrations and nightmares. There’s no interview with Betty Davis who brought Miles out of the jazz clubs and into the rock arenas during his jazz fusion break through of Bitches Brew. Betty Davis is a funk pioneer of her own and is featured on an animated episode of Mike Judge presents Tales from the Tour Bus. The final wife was actress Cicely Tyson. She helped clean him up, but things didn’t sound so sweet between them. They divorced a few years before his death. The only woman who has happy memories of her time with Miles is singer-actress Juliette GrĂ©co. She glows as she talks of introducing Miles to Picasso and Sartre. She is probably filled with happy memories because their romance lasted a short while as Miles was touring in Paris. If the film reminds us of anything, it’s that Miles wasn’t a naturally happy guy.

The drugs are also a constant theme in Miles’ life. He gets hooked on heroin during his early days in New York City. He goes in and out of rehab. Later his problem is cocaine and painkillers as he recovered from a car wreck in the ’70s. At no point during this film do you want to meet Miles Davis in person. It’s wiser to merely buy his records. The music does get it’s due on the screen. We see and hear Miles’ evolution from the early shows at Newport to his funky rise at the Fillmore. Those who chart these changes in interviews include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Mtume and Quincy Jones. They give a full picture of what Miles was like in the studio and on the stage. Miles also gets his say with quotes taken from his autobiography (co-written with Quincy Troupe) read by actor Carl Lumbly. Carl uses the same kinda rasp that Miles has in the clips where he did talk. Miles wasn’t known for talking to much in public. His speech for receiving a lifetime Grammy was three words long.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool does a great job at grasping a difficult figure. This is not one of those inspirational lives that you tell your kids to mimic in order to achieve success. Nelson presents the thrilling music and the horrific tales at the same level. He doesn’t make excuses for Miles’ worst moments. He lets us know that this was a part of Miles’ legacy as much as Kind of Blue.

Keep checking your TV listings to find out when Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool plays on your local PBS station. The movie was reviewed at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina.

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