LFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool Review
Whether in feature film or documentary form, music biogs generally have a bad reputation for their uninspirational approach to telling their stories. Stanley J. Nelson’s documentary, Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool, is another one that falls victim to the usual boilerplate style, hitting all the right notes at exactly the right time, but never willing to step outside of the expected in a way its subject could never imagine.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Miles Davis, this is an ideal starting point. Nelson journeys from the maverick trumpeter and composer's birth in 1926 through to his passing in 1991, covering the highs and lows of his career and personal life along the way. Smoothly pieced together by a trio of editors (Lewis Erskine, Yusuf Kapadia, Natasha Mottola) this is the type of doc that will play well on the smaller screen and make for an easy-going evening watch.
Miles narrates his own story through the voice of actor Carl Lumbly, who takes on the same raspy voice as the musician. Conversations previously recorded on forty cassette tapes by Miles and writer Quincy Troupe were of too poor quality to be included in the film, so excerpts are used to bridge together the archived footage, photos and talking heads. Some of genre's great names recall their personal and professional relatonships with Miles, including the likes of Ron Carter, Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock.
As tends to be the norm in these type of documentaries, we get the usual collection of black and white photos in the studio, on stage and at home, focussed on by slow zooms and pans, accompanied by a talking head story or anecdote. While Nelson’s style plays it as safe as possible, Miles' glorious music is a joy to listen to whenever it is given room to shine (just the opening strains of his Sketches of Spain album are a blissful reminder of his sublime artistry). Most of the time that is purely audio-based, as live footage is sparingly used, although there is a rare glimpse of a performance with Prince during his later years.
The various drug addictions and poor treatment of women are given their allotted time, although there is an added poignancy to hearing first wife Frances Taylor having the opportunity to speak on her marriage to Davis, as she passed away late last year aged 89. She was subjected to domestic abuse at the hands of Miles, which eventually ended their relationship after a decade, but looking back on what they had she says warmly “I don’t regret. I don’t forget. But I still love.”
Newcomers will learn how one of the 20th century's most influential albums, Kind of Blue, was largely improvised on the spot, and how from the start of his career Miles was always looking beyond the already expansive boundaries of jazz. In and outside of the studio he was the epitome of cool, changing the shape of music with his enigmatic style and influencing generations of artists ever since. Which makes it all the more surprising a definitive documentary about the man is still waiting to be made, and while The Birth of the Cool holds those inspirations, it is too bound by convention to do justice to a musical genius.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool plays at the London Film Festival.
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