The first thing that hits my senses when the lights dim and the opening credits begin to roll on Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is the music. It’s the smooth horns and lightly skipping percussion that has always been the soundtrack of cool. They’ve been the sounds we connect with Miles Davis. The next thing I hear is the raspy, smoky baritone of the late, but a very great musician who redefined the American sound several times over the past six decades. It’s Miles Davis, narrating his own documentary. (Actually, it’s an actor doing some very good voice-over work.) The “f”-bombs seal it, and narrative sets the audience onto a musical journey into the life of a man we all thought we knew.
Davis created a sound for any emotion, occasion, and mood. Sometimes the sound was born just because it needed to be heard. Stanley Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is a lyric documentary that combines the man (Miles) and his music to give us an intimate portrait of how this one mind shaped popular culture, armed on with some well manipulated musical notes. Nelson’s work humanizes the musical genius and ends up giving us a sometimes funny, other times heartbreaking look at the Miles Davis we thought we knew.
The Story from Miles Himself
I got a chance to speak to the Miles Davis’s nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. and the musician’s son Erin Davis, who are also keepers of the Miles Davis Estate. Among the many stories they told me, the ones that stuck out were about the way Davis nurtured a new sound. Erin says that Miles would pull sounds from everywhere —tv programs, city sounds, and sometimes from his own imagination — pairing them with other sounds and musicians to create the song he had in mind.
Erin went on to say that Miles would get a sound in his head and the musician would stop at nothing until he articulated that imagined set of tones into a song that the world would love. Vince added that Miles would pull musicians from bands across different genres, rock, hip hop, metal and more. Making the sound he had in mind into a song for the public was all that mattered. Otherwise, there were really no other rules.
In the documentary, Miles the narrator concurred. He talked about the need to give life to a new sound from the moment it was born in his head. Until then, it was a burden to the man and would not let him rest until it was fully articulated. The music permeated every part of his life as well.
The narrator Miles was also honest about all of his dalliances, addictions, and other shortcomings, especially when it came to his family. One of the more compelling scenes of the film was when Nelson connects the oppression of the Jim Crow America with Miles’s melancholy on returning to the states after his first trip abroad. The connection leads to opioid addiction in a pronouncement of sorts on how racism wears even very the best of us down. Mile the narrator tells this part of his life without shame because there isn’t any here. There is a lesson that we must learn from his stumbles.
Elements of a Good Story
Nelson uses much more than the Miles Davis narrator (who is a voiceover actor) to weave the story of the man behind the music. Several friends, family members, including Erin and Vince, as well as experts on Davis and the jazz history are tapped to expand upon certain parts of the music man’s story. Frances Davis, Miles’s second wife, makes a most notable appearance, giving the audience a look into the Miles she knew. Each person added another layer to the story being told, not wasting a minute or diverting from the narration.
These elements, although sometimes negative, never come off as a judgment against the musician. Instead, they work like details that come together to build the story of a human who was gifted with extraordinary talent. And, how that talent was sometimes an extraordinary burden. Nelson combines all of this into a story that is full of intrigue, plot twists, and a character we are invested in. He guides it all into something much more than an educational look at a man. It’s a film with a story and a soundtrack that is perfect for Black America right now.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is created by a documentarian who regaled audiences with a wonderful history of the HBCUs (historically black colleges) in Tell the We Are Rising. He is a born storyteller, who even began his introduction of Birth of the Cool with the story of his first Sundance film debut 20 years prior. A heartwarming anecdote, it showed how his life has been about telling stories since that debut. This film is no different.
Nelson gives audiences an intimate look at one of the coolest icons in American history. This documentary is called Birth of the Cool but ends up being a look at the good, bad, and ugly parts that compelled the man to create the cool. Where previous books and films made Miles Davis look like a magical character, Nelson’s depicts him as what he was — a man who was driven by his art and chained by the racist society he was born into. This is the look at our icons that we should be getting these days.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.