Some musicians change the way we think about music and Stanley Nelson’s documentary about jazz legend Miles Davis demonstrates Davis’s brilliance almost in spite of itself. Combining interviews with people who worked with Davis, alongside music historians and a narration by Carl Lumbly using Davis’s own words, Birth of the Cool gives newcomers a primer to the brilliance of his music and his extraordinary life.
Fans of Miles Davis will already know much of what’s on offer here, and I often found the documentary’s reliance on using historians to speak about Davis’s inner thoughts annoying. “How the hell would you know?” I said to the screen more than once.
But the film gets on surer ground as it moves through Davis’s life and into his music career, with interviews with bandmates, like saxophonist Jimmy Heath, drummer Jimmy Cobb and longtime arranger Gil Evans, combined with memories from childhood friends. A Fuller picture of Davis starts to emerge; a musical genius born, struggles with racism, using his success to break down more barriers. Birth of the Cool starts to excel when it speaks with Frances Taylor, a dancer of note and Davis’s ex-wife.
It is through her memories we see how Davis absorbed musical inspiration, always hungry to bring new influences into his process. And also how jealous and single-minded he was.
You get an idea of the man Davis was. His musical brilliance was just one part of his personality. And like many before and after him, fame would serve to magnify every crack in his character. Having Lumbly act out portions of his autobiography bring it all to life – more of this narration and less of the talking heads would have made for a more lyrical experience.
Birth of the Cool is a frustratingly conventional, made-for-TV, documentary that lacks any cinematic scale. In trying to tell the complete story of Davis’s life from cradle to grave, is skims over the glorious and intriguing details in favour of a slipstream of chronological narrative. In the end, this becomes the Reader’s Digest version of a genius, instead of a satisfying deep dive. Birth of the Cool will whet your appetite for more of Davis’s music, and more tales of his life, and hopefully send you on a great journey of your own discovery.
By Chad Armstrong