He is one of the most critically acclaimed and celebrated musicians of all time and yet I must confess I know very little about the man that is Miles Davis. His discography is at times unmatched and he is arguably the greatest jazz musician that is ever lived, but what was life really like for the man behind the trumpet? Why was he so good? What did his peers think of him? These were all questions I wanted answering as I sat down to watch Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool at the 2019 New Zealand International Film Festival.
There have been many attempts over the years to document the life of Miles Davis including the 2004 film Miles Davis Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, and the 2015 biopic Miles Ahead. This latest effort was the work of Stanley Nelson, famous for directing Freedom Riders and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
With a resume like Nelson’s and given the subject matter, Birth of the Cool had a lot to live up to, particularly also as music documentaries can often end up being too much like hard work to sit through if done wrong.
Thankfully, though this film was not boring and successfully managed to cut through the mystique and mystery of a man many fans and friends alike found hard to read despite being such a talented musician.
The film began with his upbringing and entry into the New York jazz scene and then chronologically looked at key moments of his life both in and out of music drawing on archival footage with narration from Miles himself. We got to hear about the racism he endured in America including when a policeman punched him in the head, his chronic drug and alcohol addiction which even saw him give up the trumpet for more than four years, and, of course, his many wives and girlfriends.
The range of talking heads on display was a testament to the quality of this film and the ability of Nelson to get Davis’s fellow musicians, family, and lovers to speak on camera about him. Musicians ranging from Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter spoke fondly of their time in Davis’s band and how he used to work, while the insight given into how his landmark album Kind of Blue was made was truly a highlight of the film.
Then there were the women in his life who pulled no punches in letting viewers know that Davis was a complex lover often with a violent temper and a jealous streak. It was this aspect of the film that got me thinking how complex characters musicians of the talent of Miles Davis are outside of music, probably because nothing comes before their art, including partners.
It was also nice to hear from his family and friends. This included people he grew up with and his children, the latter who he no doubt drew on during his troubled times in the seventies when he nearly died due to heavy cocaine addiction. Jazz musicians get a bit of a stereotype for being big druggies and this film did nothing in any shape to change that view.
If I was to be picky about this film, I would have liked to have learned more about how Davis changed jazz musically speaking, as well as his legacy on other genres such as hip hop. However, I feel this would not have necessarily fit within what was essentially an autobiographical look at the man behind the music.
I went into this film not knowing much about Miles Davis' life and came away with a much greater appreciation and understanding of one of the twentieth century’s musical giants. He was a complex character, no saint by any stretch, but more than anything he was like no one else, a larger than life personality, all be it a guarded one, and a once in a lifetime talent who put music before anything else in his life.