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 group would go onstage to carry out a controlled explosion, with Davis as the lead chemist: a little bit of danger and a lot of precision. This is only one of the many monikers assigned to Davis over the years. He was a man known for being experimental, fashionable, genius. As musicologist Tammy L. Kernodle puts it in the film, Davis himself was “the personification of cool.”
The film follows Davis’ life from his beginnings in East St. Louis up until his death in 1991 at the age of 65. Scored with Davis’ own music, there’s a careful study of the musician’s distinct eras — from his start as a Juilliard student to his rise with the eponymous Birth of the Cool album and finally, his later years incorporating electronic and funk elements into his work. There is considerable attention paid to the ways in which Davis combined both his technical training with the emotive highs of jazz, making for a completely innovative and distinct style of trumpet playing. In this sense, the film achieves a balance between pure biography and a showcase of Davis’ musical talent.
The film pulls from archival footage, interviews with industry peers, loved ones and music experts as well as passages from Davis’ autobiography — read by actor Carl Lumbly in an imitation of the trumpeter’s instantly recognizable rasp. Surprisingly, one of the best aspects of the film isn’t about Davis himself. Appearances from Davis’ first wife, Frances Taylor, are scene-stealers — both in her descriptions of her time with Davis and of her career as a dancer and actress (before Davis relegated her to the role of his housewife). Taylor, who died in 2018, deserves a documentary all to herself as well as due respect as an artist — not just a muse.
An overall excellent documentary, “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” transcends some of the pitfalls of biographical work. Director Stanley Nelson doesn’t frame the film as an outright homage; instead, he takes time to delve into the more mercurial aspects of Davis’ personality, including his perpetration of domestic violence, particularly inflicted on Taylor. Coming away from this film, the pungency of Davis’ inherent coolness is felt through and through, as is his undeniable talent and influence, but it offers a more complete portrait of the man behind the mystique.
Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].