Miles Davis was a musical genius, a jazz innovator who made some of the most popular albums in the style, a brilliant bandleader and performer, an intellectual and a man who always dressed sharp and “clean,” the embodiment of cool.
But he also angry and abusive, addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol, pushing away everyone in his world, family and band members and the audience that wanted to embrace him.
Davis’s story and his music are captured by director Stanley Nelson in his illuminating documentary; “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.”
Nelson tells that story chronologically, utilizing old photos, home movies, film clips, and interviews with friends, family, band members and critics, with an actor reading Davis’s words, primarily taken from his autobiography
That chronology takes Davis from growing up in East St. Louis, the trumpet-playing son of one of the richest African American men in Illinois. He moved to New York, where he studied at Julliard by day and worked the jazz clubs by night, playing bebop with, most importantly, his idol -- saxophonist Charlie Parker.
Davis traveled to Paris with arranger Gil Evans and a nine-piece band, where he briefly became part of a circle of artists and intellectuals. He returned to New York, signed with Columbia Records and formed his first quintet -- all before 1957.
“There were a lot of moving pieces in Miles’ life,” Nelson said. “The best way for (the film to tell) it became a chronological story, especially for the music. Some things that seem like they’re leaps in his music really are not. They really make sense.”
For example, Nelson said, Davis’ soundtrack to the French film “Elevator to the Gallows” is a direct precursor to “Kind of Blue,” his 1959 cool masterpiece that remains the best selling jazz album of all time.
And, later, the film vividly illustrates how Davis, who always wanted to be with the young players on the edge of the music, went electric and formulated what became known as fusion with 1970’s “Bitches Brew,” another of the most influential jazz records.
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As it traces Davis’s musical journey, the film follows an increasingly angry man, who grew up confronting racism, had his vocal cords damaged in an operation leaving him with a raspy voice, was beat up by a white New York City cop outside a club where his name was on the marquee and -- often fueled by drugs and alcohol -- struck out against those around him and eventually quit playing for five years.
“One of our central questions was how could a man who could be so angry when he went out into the world, how could he make such beautiful music?,” Nelson said. “It was a balancing act. ... We so showed the side of Miles that came through in the music. If he’d just been an angry, aggressive guy, we wouldn’t have made the film.”
The most compelling testimony about Davis’ personal life and abusiveness comes from Frances Taylor Davis, an actor and dancer who he married in 1960 and put on the cover of his “Someday My Prince Will Come” album the next year.
The couple split up in 1965, after he hit her and began a pattern of domestic abuse, and divorced in 1968. Davis, who died last year, tells her story with grace, heart and some humor.
The final “character” in the film is Davis’ music, which plays throughout most of the picture.
“We really wanted the film to rest on a bed of Miles’ music,” Nelson said. “Sometimes you can see a music film and you don’t get to hear enough music. We felt we had a responsibility to present the music. What could be better than to have a soundtrack of Miles’ music?”
“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” is enriching for Davis fans -- I learned so much I’ve watched the picture twice -- and will be illuminating for those who know little about him beyond “Kind of Blue,” “Sketches of Spain” or “Bitches Brew.”
“For me, what happened is the film became something bigger,” Nelson said. “It’s about more than Miles. It’s a film about America, about being a black man in America in those years. It’s a film about what can happen with a genius, good and bad. It’s a film about culture and music, whether you’re a Miles fan or don’t know anything about him. “