When asked, “who are the greatest musicians of all time?” Who comes to mind for you? There’s so many to choose from, but one of the top ones on my list and so many others would be Miles Davis. He’s very likely the most inventive jazz artists of all time, who pushed the boundaries of the form over and over and has been celebrated continuously for good reason.
Birth of the Cool which shares a title with a Davis album from 1957, explores the intricacies of his career in great detail. Because Davis’ oeuvre is so massive, it still feels like there are stones left unturned. This is through no fault of Stanley Nelson, the director who took on the task of compiling Davis’ history. It’s simply because his legendary status and body of work are so monumental a two-hour movie can’t do it justice. But it certainly comes close.
There are interviews with several of Davis’ bandmates over the years, including Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Wayne Shorter, Rene Utinger, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, Mike Stern, and more. We learn about Davis’ improvisational performance style that changed the face of jazz (and all other music). We tour the different iterations of Davis’ combos, including the Quintet which brought John Coltrane to the public eye before achieving legendary status himself.
“…very likely the most inventive jazz artists of all time, who pushed the boundaries of the form over and over…”
We also learn about the series of wives and girlfriends that Davis had over the years, after his high school sweetheart, Irene. There came Juliette Greco, one of his early loves who he met in Paris. He was emboldened by his stay there because, in post-WWII France, there was not as much inherent racism towards black people as there always has been (and maybe always will be) in the United States. He was meeting with philosophers and intellectuals through Greco, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who asked Davis “Why don’t you marry Greco?” to which he responded, “Because I love her.” While he was in Paris, he also recorded the soundtrack to Louis Malle’s’ Elevator to the Gallows which revolutionized the way film soundtracks were recorded.
After leaving Greco behind in Paris, Davis returned to the US, disillusioned by the way of living in America as a black man. It was at this time that his propensity for drugs and alcohol came to the fore. He had a bad heroin addiction and ended up going back to East St Louis to live with his father for a time. When he came back, his career really started to take off. Around this time, in the Kind of Blue era is where he met Frances Taylor, a famous dancer. She said he told her “Now that I’ve found you, I’ll never let you go.”
Miles had several successful albums, and even though he was one of the most famous musicians in the world, this didn’t stop the police from beating him up outside of his own concert with his name on the marquis. Miles became (even more) bitter and cynical after this, and thusly a new habit was sparked, that of cocaine, which as they say..is a hell of a drug.
“…Miles’ propensity for the words motherfucker and bullshit. The latter of which he took none.”
There are so many great anecdotes from the likes of Farrah Jasmine Griffin, Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, Quincy Troupe and so many more. His entire career and personal life is laid bare for all of us. It’s helped by a narration gave by “Miles Davis” which is voiced by Carl Lumley. I could write so much more about this documentary, but that would take all the fun out of seeing it yourself. One of the aspects I found most entertaining was that everyone he knew had an impersonation of Davis’ signature raspy voice. One of my favorite parts is when Quincy Jones is talking about the only time they played together on stage, when Davis was much older. He asked Davis to play the show with him, “I kept bugging him about it,” says Jones and then imitating Davis, “and he says ‘okay, motherfucker, I’ll do it.” Another thing you find out in this film is Miles’ propensity for the words motherfucker and bullshit. The latter of which he took none.
I highly recommend this decades-spanning, engrossing, hilarious, sad, and informative documentary to all music fans, whether you liked Davis beforehand or not. At the end of the film, you will come out wanting to listen to his music, to know what this tortured brilliant mind put out into the world. I was happy to know that Davis did overcome his problems with addiction and died with a woman who loved him. Her name is Jo Gellebrand, she’s a painter, and Miles got an interest in painting late in his life so they would paint together. According to Gellibrand, before he got sick, while his career had an upsurge but his health was declining, he said “When God punishes you, it’s not that you don’t get what you want. It’s that you get everything that you want but there’s no time left.” I think that quote encapsulates Miles Davis’ personality perfectly, just as Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool encapsulated his incredible career as much as a film can in two hours.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019) Written and Directed by Stanley Nelson. Starring Farrah Jasmine Griffin, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, Cheryl Davis, Erin Davis, Frances Taylor, Marguerite Cantu, Reginald Petty, Quincy Troupe, Jo Gellebrand, Lee Anne Bonner, Ashley Kahn, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Dan Morgenstern, Gerald Early, Wayne Shorter, Tammy Kermodle, Juliette Greco, Vincent Bessiers, George Wein, Cortez McCoy, Rene Urtiger, Paul Chambers, James Mtume, Lenny White, Vince Wilburn, Archie Shepp, Stanley Crouch, Gil Evans, Ron Carter, Clive Davis, Greg Tate, Mark Rothbaum, Marcus Miller, Mike Stern, Mikel England, Carl Lumbly. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
9 out of 10 stars