Sundance Film Review: ‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’

Miles Davis is the one jazz figure of the postwar era who had, and still has, the larger-than-life quality of a pop star. Other jazz artists, of course, became legends (Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, etc.), but Miles, like Picasso or Dylan, had a mystique rooted not just in his genius but in his cult of personality. And as with all pop icons, the mystique only grew the more that he mutated — from the glaring-eyed cool cat of the ’50s to the sunken-cheeked fusion hipster of the late ’60s to the raspy sci-fi funk badass who Eddie Murphy, on “Saturday Night Live,” compared (hilariously) to a Gremlin action figure. Davis’ bad behavior, of course, was part of his mystique: the crazed drug cocktails that destroyed and sustained him (at one pointed he favored cocaine plus beer but whiskey plus milk), the way he loved women deeply yet, too often, treated them reprehensibly.

So any documentary about Miles Davis that really wants to take him all in has to grapple with each of those dimensions — the lyrical jazz genius, the midnight pop star, the drugs and domestic violence, the stubborn inner light — and demonstrate how, exactly, they fit together. “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” does just that.

Directed by the gifted Stanley Nelson (“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”), it’s a tantalizing portrait: rich, probing, mournful, romantic, triumphant, tragic, exhilarating, and blisteringly honest. If you were 15 years old and walked into this movie having never heard of Miles Davis, you’d walk out touching the essence of who he is (and would probably be hungry to hear a dozen different albums). If you’re a Miles Davis fanatic from way back and think you already know everything about him, the movie, with its sharply edited interviews and stunning archival reach, fills in nuances of the man that feel fresh and new. That’s what first-rate classical documentary filmmaking does: It brings a life you may already know to even greater life.

As someone who’s absorbed bits and pieces of the Miles Davis story over the years but never felt like I had the big picture, I found “Birth of the Cool” to be intensely gratifying. Nelson is a filmmaker with a sixth sense for how to nudge history into the present. His period montages flash by in lightning cuts (which makes them more alive), and he deploys amazing photographs of Davis, starting with when he was just a kid. The movie is narrated by Cal Lumbly, impersonating Miles’ famous sandpaper rasp as he reads passages from Davis’ autobiography — a device that may strike you as corny, though Davis’ writing is so articulate in its candor that it lends the film a vital dimension.

Davis, for an African-American born in 1926, had an astonishingly privileged upbringing. His father, a dentist and farmer, was the second wealthiest man in Illinois, though that hardly insulated the young Miles from the evils of Jim Crow. Once he began to play the trumpet, an instrument his father chose for him (his mother argued for the violin and — thankfully — lost), he was hellbent on getting to New York City, with its glittering row of jazz clubs along 52nd St., to join the revolution that was bebop.

He’d met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during a teenage stint in Billy Eckstine’s swing band, and in the photos from the late ’40s you see a Miles Davis who hasn’t come into himself yet: small, coiled, and slightly morose, with conked hair. He attended Juilliard, which most jazz musicians considered too white for comfort (they thought it would take something away from them). But he needed more, and got it when he journeyed to Paris, where he was treated as a budding star — and, for the first time, someone on an equal footing with whites. He rubbed shoulders with Picasso and Sartre and entered the first of his head-turning romantic liaisons, with the actress and chanson singer Juliette Gréco.

This part of the movie is fascinating, because you watch it thinking that Davis, in Europe, had already escaped the fate of Nina Simone, who became so sunk in bitterness at American racism — but, in fact, when Davis was on the plane back to the U.S., he got so depressed at the prospect of returning that he couldn’t speak. The despair spun him into heroin addiction.

He flamed out of Parker’s band and, at 29, was already doing his first “comeback” performance — at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, which was really his audition for the record labels. Onstage, his muted long notes held the crowd spellbound.

He signed with Columbia, and there’s a grand paradox to the 1959 album he recorded there that became the foundation of his mystique. Bebop was a music of hard, jabbing thrust made by musicians who refused to smile or even “entertain.” As one pundit in “Birth of the Cool” observes, that quality represented the music’s rejection of minstrelsy. Miles had as pure and “hard” an image as anyone who came out of bebop, but on the majestic LP “Kind of Blue,” though the harmonies descended from bebop, he produced music of stunning romanticism and languid vulnerability. It was real 3:00 a.m. music — or, as someone calls it in “Birth of the Cool,” music white people could make love to. It become a one-album jazz-crossover sensation, elevating Miles to a pantheon all his own.

There’s a weird karma to the fact that in August 1959, the very month the album was released, Davis was standing outside Birdland, taking a cigarette break between sets, when a racist cop told him he couldn’t stand there; his refusal to move resulted in the cop bashing him in the head. We see photos of that fateful night, and even more disturbing than the dried blood on Davis’ jacket is his shell-shocked look. “That incident changed me forever,” he says on the soundtrack. “It made me more bitter and cynical than I might have been.”

It makes you wonder if the bitterness played out in his marriage to Frances Taylor, the dancer who become his muse and the love of his life. She was an entrancing presence; in the documentary, where Frances is interviewed in her late 80s, she keeps invoking her own irresistibility with such elfin glee that she’s…irresistible. Miles was in thrall to her, but a casual comment she made about Quincy Jones being “handsome” was enough to result in Davis doing to her what that cop had done to him. He smashed her in the head. It was the beginning of the end of the relationship and (you might argue) the moment when Davis set himself on a collision course with the dark side.

“Birth of the Cool” includes stories that are famous, like the one about how Davis, in 1955, couldn’t resist talking after he had surgery to remove polyps from his throat, which is why he wound up with his famous vampire rasp. It also includes stories that are unfamiliar, at least to me, like how he composed the groundbreaking score to Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” by literally watching the movie and improvising along with it. He was the nattiest of dressers (there are great shots of him being fitted for a bespoke suit), and even as he was making a mess of his domestic life, his creativity in the recording studio was insatiable.

But once the ’60s kicked in, the jazz audience began to dwindle, and Miles, observing the rock scene, wanted a piece of it. He wanted to play oversize concerts, to bask in the mass glory. His recording of “Bitches Brew” — often described as the first fusion record — was an act of sheer audacity, and the key word in the album’s title was brew. He mingled rhythm and a certain dark cacophony into a boiling cauldron of sound. The critic Stanley Crouch is on hand to question, rightly, whether a lot of this was actually good music, but the movie indicates that Miles was paving the way toward house, electronica, and hip-hop. On stage in his oversize sunglasses, he became the master of ceremonies presiding over a voodoo jam session.

“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” doesn’t soft-pedal Davis’ hard times, like the six-year break he took from picking up his horn, during which he holed himself up in his townhouse, a burnout trying to claw his way back to freedom. But the way the movie presents it, it’s all part of the same story: Davis’ need to cast music as a form of possession. He remained kind of blue, and that was his magic, but he was also tender and turbulent and ferocious. “Birth of the Cool” captures everything Miles poured into the creation of that mood ring of sound.

Sundance Film Review: 'Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool'

Reviewed a Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), January 27, 2019. Running time: 115 MIN.

Production:A Firelight Media, Eagle Rock Films production. Producers: Stanley Nelson, Nicole London. Executive producers: Terry Shand, Geoff Kempkin, Michael Kantor.

Crew:Director: Stanley Nelson. Editor: Lewis Erskine. Music: Miles Davis.

With:Frances Taylor Davis, Juliette Gréco, Stanley Crouch, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Farah Griffin, Gerald Early, Greg Tate, Carl Lumbly.

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