'Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool' review: Excellent portrait of the jazz legend
DOCUMENTARY "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" on PBS' "American Masters"
WHEN|WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT For this "American Masters" career perspective, filmmaker Stanley Nelson talks to Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana, pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Ron Carter, and many others, as well as Davis’ son Erin and nephew Vince Wilburn. The most noteworthy — and startling — interview is with his second wife, Frances Taylor. This was her last interview before her death in 2018.
Born to an affluent family in Illinois in 1926, Davis was playing trumpet with Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker by the time he was 18 and when "Birth of the Cool" — a compilation album — came out a few years later in 1957, he had revolutionized jazz.
Carl Lumbly — or at least his voice — channels Davis throughout, with excerpts from Davis' 1990 autobiography, which he co-wrote with Quincy Troupe.
MY SAY When Davis died in 1991 — hard life, copious drug use, an incandescent body of work — Newsday's jazz critic Gene Seymour wrote that "he was simply the greatest show in modern jazz" and "spoke from the darkness as a way of reaching out to those who were lost in it."
Nearly 30 years later, Nelson confirms this appraisal, then sorts through — if not quite out — some of the lingering contradictions as well. The anger and remoteness are acknowledged, Davis' sporadic violence toward women (Taylor in particular) is as well. He suffered from depression, physical pain, addiction and like many black Americans, the scarring effects of racism. Davis was one of the most renowned musicians in the world when he was sucker-punched by an NYPD detective outside Birdland in 1959, his bespoke suit splattered in blood. "Changed my whole life, whole attitude," he would later say. Critics took to calling him the "Prince of Darkness." You wonder why.
But that "greatest show in modern jazz" is what endures, and Nelson sensibly gives it the prominence and priority demanded. While Davis disciples might not be fully satisfied with what's here, the samplings are generous, major phases well-explored, and better yet, well-explained. The world-shattering Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-50s, then the collaborations with Gil Evans (and "Kind of Blue" in '59), would not only change jazz but all of modern music. (Davis even collaborated with Karlheinz Stockhausen, but Nelson doesn't get around to that.)
Modern cinema was changed too: His score for Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows" in 1958 arguably did more for Malle's "Nouvelle Vague" movement than Malle did. As "Birth of the Cool" establishes, the score endures while the film is forgotten.
There's some reappraisal here too. When Davis went "electric" in the late-1960s, he — like Bob Dylan before him — got bitter blowback from fans and critics. But the clips here, including concert footage from 1970's studio album "Bitches Brew," are still vital and thrilling. Davis knew exactly what he was doing after all.
But what's missing over these two hours is Davis himself. There's a vast trove of archival interview footage out there — Dick Cavett's 1986 encounter and the still weirdly watchable "60 Minutes"' profile from 1988 are just two obvious examples. Nelson ignores it all and instead, Davis is channeled through Lumbly's uncanny vocal impression. You see Davis play here but you really need to see him talk. He had a lot to say.
BOTTOM LINE Davis is demystified and deconstructed in this corrective — and excellent — portrait.