Jazz is one of the few genres that never really resonated with me. Oh, I’ll skee-boppidy-bop-bop along with some of the more upbeat tracks in the elevator, but it always struck me as a style that’s more fun to play than listen to. Which means, consequently, many of the field’s virtuosos are off my radar.
So it is thanks to a great documentarian, director Stanley Nelson (“American Experience”), that “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” makes interesting and demonstrably relevant Davis’ life and impressionistic music to rubes like me.
Miles Davis was born in rural Illinois, in an era when the family’s moderate wealth did nothing to mitigate the racism and segregation to which they were subjected. And when Davis later moved to NYC, then not only the Jazz mecca, but a destination for the worlds’ cosmopolites, he was disappointed to find that despite his name being on the marquee, he was harassed and bloodied by police as if he were a layabout. It was an incident that would embitter him, but not dampen his creativity. In fact, the opposite occurred. His music transcended race. With his seminal album, “Birth of the Cool,” Davis became the “personification of cool,” as Nelson paints. “Being into Miles was the definition of being hip.” Women cooed, “I want to feel the way Miles sounds.”
Nelson approaches Davis’ life and career linearly as the artist rides a roller coaster of substance abuse cycles — reinventing himself after each low — punctuated by the women in his life. His time in Paris, noshing with the likes of Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre. The flamenco and Indian influences. His painting phase. And finally, an attempt at psychedelic funk to capitalize on the 60s, which some found too far out of his wheelhouse while others claimed would be a foundation for hip-hop a decade later.
Contemporary luminaries like Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock add context, but most salient are Davis’ own raspy autobiographical insights via Minneapolis voice actor Carl Lumbly.
Handily one of the year’s best documentaries.
Rating: 4 Honks