SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Stanley Nelson, 2019)


Whatever film festival I cover, I always like to find time for a movie about music and/or dance. This year’s music movie is a biodoc about Miles Davis, produced for the PBS American Masters TV series. As such, in no way does it attempt to explore the limits of the form, or give us anything more than an illustrated history of its subject (unlike previous festival favorite art docs like Ballet 422 or any random Frederick Wiseman film). But its limitations being what they are, it’s a solid enough piece of work. A kind of Miles 101 for a general audience, distinguished by wall-to-wall music and excellent use of archival photographs and home movies.

We follow Davis’s life from birth to death, hitting all the musical high points along the way, and making time for the low points of his personal life as well (mainly drug and spousal abuse). First person narration is read in an imitation of Davis’s distinctive rasp by actor Carl Lumbly, repeating Davis’s words from interviews conducted by Quincy Troupe during their writing of Davis’s autobiography. Musical luminaries serve as talking heads, along with a few of Davis’s friends and wives and children. The film is at its best when it gets lost in the music, highlighting with ease what made Davis’s tone and style so uniquely special, ably distinguishing him from his peers in bebop and charting his evolution from post-war New York all the way through the 1980s. As much time is devoted to the later work as the early hits, which is nice to see for once in a music doc. So many tend to focus on a small slice of an artist’s work, Birth of the Cool embraces the whole of Miles Davis though.

And that includes his personal life, the failings in which the film does not excuse, though some of the interviewees might seem to do so. His second wife, Frances Taylor Davis, is the most affecting interview, recalling with equal poignance the good times and the bad ones. The question underlying it all–what do we as fans, as a society, do with a genius artist who does unequivocally bad things–is never really answered. I don’t know that it can be. I do know that Miles Davis, flaws and all, is probably the greatest American composer of the second half of the 20th century.

Friday May 24 – Thursday May 30

Featured Film:

SIFF Week Two

The Seattle International Film Festival rolls into its second week, and highlights include: Ying Liang’s semi-autobiographical A Family Tour; Mrs. Purple, Justin Chon’s follow-up to his popular debut feature Gook; No. 1 Chung Ying Street, Derek Chiu’s excellent film about two generations of protestors in Hong Kong; Pauline Kael documentary What She Said; Ida Lupino’s melodrama The Bigamist and her classic noir The Hitch-Hiker; Peter Strickland’s In Fabric; and Olivier Assayas’s very funny satire of upper-class literary twits, Non-Fiction.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs  

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs 
The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

Central Cinema:

Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) Fri-Tues
Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) Fri-Weds Dubbed and Subtitled, Check Listings 
Tales from Earthsea (Gorō Miyazaki, 2006) Weds Only Subtitled

SIFF Egyptian:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

Century Federal Way:

Chandigarh Amritsar Chandigarh (Karan R Guliani) Fri-Thurs 
Muklawa (Simerjit Singh) Fri-Thurs 

Grand Cinema:

Meeting Gorbachev (Werner Herzog) Fri-Thurs  
The Serengeti Rules (Nicolas Brown) Fri-Thurs 
Nureyev (David Morris, Jacqui Morris) Fri-Thurs 
The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs  
Red Joan (Trevor Nunn) Fri-Thurs 
Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004) Sat Only Subtitled
Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) Sat Only 
Ask Dr. Ruth (Ryan White) Tues Only 
Iyengar: The Man, Yoga, and The Student’s Journey (Jake Clennell) Weds Only 
Satan & Adam (V. Scott Balcerek) Thurs Only 

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The Man who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam) Fri-Thurs 
The Wind (Emma Tammi) Fri-Thurs 
SMUT SHOW II: Peace, Love, and Hardcore Tues Only 16mm

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Maharshi (Vamsi Paidipally) Fri-Thurs 
The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester) Fri-Thurs 
De De Pyaar De (Akiv Ali) Fri-Thurs 
India’s Most Wanted (Raj Kumar Gupta) Fri-Thurs 
PM Narendra Modi (Omung Kumar) Fri-Thurs 
Sita (Anup Rubens) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Meridian:

The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs 
Photograph (Ritesh Batra) Fri-Thurs 

Northwest Film Forum:

The Serengeti Rules (Nicolas Brown) Fri-Sun, Tues 
Travessias Brazilian Film Festival – Short Film Program Fri & Sat Only 
Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (Stephen Kijak, 2008) Sun Only 
Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (Stuart A. Staples) Weds & Thurs Only 
Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra) Thurs Only 

AMC Pacific Place:

The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Student of the Year 2 (Punit Malhotra) Fri-Thurs 
De De Pyaar De (Akiv Ali) Fri-Thurs 
The White Crow (Ralph Fiennes) Fri-Thurs 

AMC Seattle:

Photograph (Ritesh Batra) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Film Center:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

SIFF Uptown:

The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program 

Varsity Theatre:

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack) Fri-Thurs