The continual reinvention and resurrection of the jazz legend
Unlike many music documentaries, Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool is not an advertisement for questionably good rock music, bad entitled patriarchal behavior, sex and drugs. It’s about the bravery of reinvention, the struggle for African American genius and survival in White Supremacist America. Beauty, tragedy, and rage are all expressed through Miles Davis’ horn, photographs, and an array of exciting interviews with a notably mostly African American cast of academia, musicians, friends, and family.
The film develops context through Miles’ narrative voice (read by Carl Lumbly) and by historical photographs, as we see Miles’ background as a wealthy youth in the suburbs of St. Louis. This wealth however, will not protect him from the racism or misogynistic domestic violence he is exposed to as a kid. We hear of childhood Miles bringing his horn out into the woods, and imitating local bird life, perhaps in an early attempt at musical escapism.
“Music has always been like a curse with me,” the Miles-narrator says. “I’ve always felt driven to play it. It’s the first thing in my life. I go to bed thinking about it wake up thinking about it. It’s always there. It comes before everything. “
Through his diligent practice and budding genius, traveling national acts quickly notice Miles and ask him to sit in. “Greatest feeling I ever had in my life (with my clothes on) was when I met Dizz and Bird,” he says. As Miles meets his contemporaries, he sets his sights on NYC, the funk of 52nd street, and the whiteness of Julliard.
He says: “Living is an adventure and a challenge. It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe. I’ve always been the way I am, been like this my whole life. If anybody wants to be about creating, they have to be about change. “
The film shows Miles Davis exploding beyond the constraints of status quo sounds throughout his long career. When young Miles is working the clubs on 52nd street, he comes up with his own tone and style. His project “Birth of the Cool” melds modern classical with jazz and is marketable to white audiences who’d previously blamed noisy jazz for everything from bad weather to immoral behavior. The French invite Miles to play in Paris and receive him as a contemporary of Sartre, Picasso, and Juliette Greco. He learns that “All White people are not the same…where I was living in an illusion of possibility, maybe a miracle had happened.”
In Paris, Miles is in love for the first time, and really enjoying success. However, disturbed by the profound code switching he experiences returning to America, he falls into a heroin addiction and stops playing. But against all odds, he survives! Music and family pick him up again. A vulnerable and recovering Miles “changes jazz forever” with a sensitive and romantic performance at Newport Jazz Fest, and invites everyone to accept be-bop. This part of the documentary is a bit funny, there’s lots of pictures of beautiful people cuddling and kissing, with high heels raised.
To get out of a Prestige record contract, Miles quickly records four albums that become jazz history. “He basically took the handcuffs of the musicians… (said)You do you. I’m going to let the music breath as we feel it.”- (Musicologist Tammy Kernodle) Miles then invents a new kind of film scoring composition with his groundbreaking work on the French film “Elevator to the Gallows”. He reinvents again with “Kind of Blue”, and allows his musicians to improvise and reach for whatever sounds they feel based on his sound sketches. It’s inspiring to hear how much Miles shared his ideas with other genius artists and trusted everyone’s instincts to let those sounds expand and grow.
The film mostly dutifully touches on Miles’ demons and problematic relationships with women. It waves a little red flag is waved early on when you hear him describe his parents hitting each other, saying “it had to affect us somehow, although I really don’t know how.” This signals to the viewer that the filmmakers were preparing us for our hero’s abusive behavior.
Francis Miles, Miles’ first wife and abuse survivor, tells her story of his drug and alcohol fueled violence. Marguerite Cantu also powerfully describes how she didn’t need him in her life anymore when he became violent, abusive and paranoid. We get to know that when Miles is using, he’s abusing. The film makes no further comments on his behavior, just shows women leaving him after they are done being mused and abused. The film shows none of his male friends or colleagues commenting on his violent behavior, but they mentions his metaphorical demons.
After a painful car wreck, Miles Davis sequesters himself in his NYC apartment for about six years and abandons music. His son Erin says he was a little bit scared of him, visiting and seeing cigarettes, cocaine and beer everywhere. People stop by and describe seeing a ghost-like figure. Eventually Cecily Tyson helps clean up our horn hero. She gets him to eat better, get off the cocaine, and start working again.
He begins touring, opening up to interviews and collaborations, and yet again embarks on a new aesthetic phase, visual art. He falls in love, enjoys renewed international fame, a third fashion makeover, and reunions with old colaboraters and friends, but he’s having trouble playing his horn. His breath is leaving him. He tells his lover, “When God punishes you it’s not that you don’t get what you want. You get everything that you want and there’s no time left.” He passes shortly after getting his life back.
Miles made many comebacks in his life, as a man, an artist and icon. He faced his failures and addictions like a man on the edge, and his breakthroughs and triumphs like a man conquering mountains and open sky. I found myself mourning with his friends as they cried describing his passing, and I waved back at his image as the end credits rolled.