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.