Miles Davis was one of the greatest musicians ever. He was also a nasty motherfucker. Stanley Nelson's documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool pivots on these two immutable elements of the jazz trumpeter's existence with a penetrating, analytical approach that doesn't stint on emotion. It's about as rewarding a dissection of a great artist and problematic human as one could hope for in under two hours.
Nelson enlists an elite cadre of Davis's bandmates, wives and lovers, childhood friends, family members, promoters, music critics and historians, managers, label bosses, and Carlos Santana to provide key insights into this tormented genius. They're generous with praise, but not afraid to call out the man's faults, of which there were plenty. Birth of the Cool is bolstered by passages from Miles Davis's autobiography—written with Quincy Troupe—that are voiced by the actor Carl Lumbly. The latter does such an amazing job, I thought it was actually Davis's whispery rasp sandpapering the soundtrack.
The film slants heavily toward Davis's early life and his musical career from the 1940s through the early 1970s, while skimming over almost everything after 1972's On the Corner (Davis's peak, Stanley Crouch and Charles Mudede's disdain be damned). This means we get attention on Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew and none on Agharta and Pangaea, the magnum opuses from 1975, before Davis took a drug-addled, depression-laden, five-year break from music. Important 1960s LPs such as Miles in the Sky and In a Silent Way go ignored, as do the scorching fusion classics Get Up with It and Dark Magus.
Surely, hard decisions had to be made to keep Birth of the Cool from stretching to eight hours, but these choices are bound to bother some fans—as will the non-mention of Teo Macero, producer of Davis's most groundbreaking fusion works. But that's the trouble with Davis: He had too many revolutionary phases for one documentary to explicate properly.
Born in 1926, Davis grew up in an affluent East Saint Louis family, although their wealth didn't shield them from racism—a situation that instilled in him a justified bitterness toward whites. That he later came to employ many whites in his bands showed how he valued his art above everything, selecting whomever he thought could best manifest his complex visions.
His parents had a tumultuous relationship, but they nurtured their gifted son's musical aspirations, sending him to Juilliard. However, Davis was more excited about the prospect of meeting Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 52nd Street jazz clubs than attending class. The precocious lad insinuated himself into the bebop scene, but also succumbed to vices common among the era's musicians: booze and heroin.
Nelson marks year changes in his movie with speedy montages of stock political- cultural footage that may give you vertigo. Other than this flaw, though, he presents an elegant parade of photos and live shots both onstage and off of Davis's highlights, devoting equal time to his art and inner life, letting his music enhance every image.
Musicologist Tammy L. Kernodle pinpoints the gist of Davis's dilemma: He was hostile, but his demons may have been integral to his art. His music and painting helped him to heal from the bullshit white society had heaped on him, including a scandalous beating from a NYC cop. Kernodle theorizes that Davis's deeply emotive music enabled him to show vulnerability that he couldn't display in society.
While the film's commenters deem Davis the epitome of a hip black man who took no shit, he was also physically and mentally abusive to some of his wives and girlfriends, actions that would likely get him "canceled" today. Nelson fairly presents Davis's blemishes and virtues, but he ultimately can't help elevating Davis to godhead status.