Film review

Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool – UK Premiere at London Film Festival

Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool – UK Premiere at London Film Festival
Director: Stanley Nelson
(Eagle Rock/Firelight Films/American Masters Pictures/BBC Music. Film review by Adam Sieff)

When a really great music documentary comes along it lays the rest out cold. And so far this year we’ve had two of them, first there was Sophie Huber’s exhilarating Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, and now Stanley Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. Nelson is an acknowledged master of the documentary film genre, and tells Miles’ extraordinary life story engagingly and with real style. The excellent editing is by Lewis Erskine, who has worked with Nelson many times before and previously edited Ken Burns’ Jazz TV series. As the opening credits rolled at the Curzon Soho Cinema on Thursday there was a palpable buzz that this was a labour of love for everyone involved.

Miles in the studio with Gil Evans (Film still courtesy of Eagle Rock)

The energy doesn’t sag for a minute with so much ground to cover in a feature length time of just under two hours. Setting each new scene are sequences of fast cut editing (set to Paraphernalia from Miles in the Sky), while Miles’ own words are spoken by the actor Carl Lumbly, not quite as raspy as the original but certainly much more audible. There’s an entertaining cast of talking heads who narrate the story, the musicians, old friends, lovers and jazz insiders including Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Juliette Gréco, Jo Gelbard, Marcus Miller, Ron Carter, Ashley Kahn, Stanley Crouch and Quincy Troupe. I enjoyed the new film clips and photos, but even the familiar Robert Herridge Theatre and Columbia studio footage felt revitalised in this dynamic setting. I wanted to hear even more about the music, and unless I missed it, there was no mention of Teo Macero, Miles’ producer (after George Avakian) whose editing was an integral part of Miles’ recorded sound. 

Nelson’s expertise in documenting the African American experience sensitively deals with the depression and despair Miles felt living under Jim Crow laws, and his libération in Paris during 1949 where he realised that he could be anyone he wanted to be, only to fall into despair on  returning home. There’s no holding back about the dark side, the drugs and alcohol, the car crashes both real and metaphorical, the hustling, cruelty and abuse, the forced retirement years, broken physically and living in squalor. But there is a great deal of humour too, especially from Jimmy Cobb, Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Carlos Santana and particularly Miles’ ex-wife Frances Taylor who frequently had the audience laughing along with her. For instance, she said that after they had broken up “I heard that Miles said whoever gets me will be a lucky motherfucker. And he was.”

A colleague commented the film was “lacking in revelation”. And for those who know their subject well he may have a point. But even If you’ve read Miles’ autobiography or Ian Carr’s definitive biography, or watched Michael Dibb’s 2001 film The Miles Davis Story, there’s still plenty to learn and enjoy from this fascinating and moving documentary about this complex musician who kept reinventing himself, both for musical and commercial reasons, but always on his own terms.

And if you’ve just arrived from out of town and never heard of Miles Davis, of his genius, elegance and wonderful sound that touched people so deeply, it’s just as highly recommended.

Showing at: 

Pictures Houses around the country from 22 October
EFG London Jazz Festival, Barbican Cinema 2 16 November
BBC TV at a future date

Adam Sieff was Director, Jazz, UK & Europe for Miles Davis’ main label Columbia/Sony Music from 1995-2005.

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