Stanley Nelson's documentary, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, not only delicately entrances you with immaculate storytelling, but because of the subject matter, shakes you awake into a full state of consciousness. Colours and music —sight and sound—are dished out with perfect timing, as we are chronologically taken through the life and career of Miles Davis. We are given the socio-political context of the culture Miles was a part of, and this in turn shows us how he contributed to that culture. Each key decade begins with its own introduction: an exhilaratingly fast paced sequence of photos and video snippets that depict the people, fashion, hair styles, music and the general energy of that specific time.
Image: Sundance Institute.
We begin by tracing the roots of Miles Davis back to his childhood in Jim Crow America, East St Louis, where being born in to a financially secure family does not exempt him from segregation. The racial prejudice flowing through America’s veins so violently is something that he is confronted with again later on in his life, illustrating how no level of fame, wealth, or status ever seems to quite knock the fundamental mentality of ignorance, hate, and racism.
For his ninth birthday, Miles received his first trumpet as a birthday gift, although his mother had wanted it to be a violin, which would have led to a completely different musical and cultural landscape for the Twentieth century and onwards. By 1944, an eighteen-year-old Miles goes to New York to study his craft at Juilliard, whilst also discovering and playing Jazz on 52nd Street with none other than The Bird (Charlie Parker).
Word on the street was (and still is) that once you start to “study” music, you lose the feeling and soul of it. But Davis was very aware of what Juilliard had to offer him, checking out dozens of books of music of great composers as he wanted to get an idea of everything else that was happening, and had happened, in the world of music. He did, however, know that there was something happening on 52nd Street that wasn’t happening at Juilliard. We hear an old friend of his narrate, “the stuff you’d hear was so good, it was frightening”, over incredible fast-paced images of 52nd Street at night.
The film makes sure to trace the roots of Jazz back to Blues, a form of song born out of deep emotion and the need to express one’s soul in the face of cruelty, pain and inhumanity. In a similar way, this form of music thrives by expressing something so beautiful. And that was something you could not learn from books and classes. In the same way that Jazz was the product of Blues, Hip-Hop (arriving in the seventies with influences of funk) was the product of both of these musical formats, stemming from the need to express oneself against cruelty. It was a form of taking back strength, and was built on the foundations of poetry, lyricism, and knowing how to use a beat.
Talking to the women of his life (except the mother of his children, Irene), it was made clear that Davis was a misogynist, aggressive, and a deeply troubled human. The fact that this behaviour was an effect of seeing his father hit his mother as a child, mixed with hard drugs and alcohol, is undeniable but not justifiable. If one thing is for sure, it's that this canonical artist was a fundamentally flawed man. An old colleague reminisces: “You’d see him and want him to be Super-man… but it just doesn’t work like that, it just doesn’t”.
Nelson managed to capture a beautiful interview with dancer Frances Taylor Davis (now passed away), who embodies confidence and beauty, with a personality that burns through the screen and speaks right to your soul. A fascinating person indeed, Frances was asked to perform with the Paris Opera Ballet, being the first African American in history, man or woman, to perform with the company (Rogo, 2018). When married to Miles, she had been cast in the Broadway production of West Side Story. Due to paranoia, jealousy and of course our friends alcohol and hard drugs, Miles pulled her out of the show. Why is it, that so many men want a woman to be seductive and independent until they have them? (This shouldn’t be a rhetorical question, I’d honestly like some answers.)
Before Frances, Miles was with was none other than iconic French singer Juliette Gréco, with whom he experienced for the first time a “coup de foudre”. The barrier of language fell as soon as the pair began making music together. Being another strong figure and source of inspiration for Miles Davis, Gréco thus helped throw gasoline onto the fire that was to become some the most soulful jazz music in history. As the Woodstock era rolled around, Miles met the singer Betty Davis, who brought him into the new peace, love and rock’n’roll age, musically and stylistically. This film is about Miles Davis, but James Brown was right: it wouldn’t be anything without the women that came along, with their eyes and spirits acting as lifelines that fed something to Miles which nothing else could—a fire and lust for life.
Miles's trip to Paris, like many Americans' (and Afro-Americans' particularly), was a pivotal moment in the expansion of his perspective, for better and for worse. It was here that Davis first fully understood that not all white people are prejudiced, giving him the opportunity to live as his full self. Now aware of this, leaving Paris to go back to New York was too much to bear, knowing what he was going back to after tasting and feeling life without the racial prejudice that was (and still is) so prominent in America. Americans leaving America has historically been a necessary and spiritual move for many, as it is only with distance that we can observe and understand the full picture.
In a film punctuated by all the colours of life, from love and joy to hurt and pain, we’re given the ultimate story of life in this society. If we had to encapsulate an example of the experience, history and essence of human life to send to an alien planet—this film would be a perfect contender for that purpose.
Image: Miles Davis recording "Kind of Blue" in 1959, AP/PC/Sony/Don Hunstein.
UK release is October 14th, showing at the Prince Charles Cinema - Get tickets here:
Rogo, P. (2018). Frances Taylor Davis, First Wife Of Miles Davis, Has Died. [online] Essence. Available at: https://www.essence.com/celebrity/frances-taylor-davis-first-wife-miles-davis-dies/ [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor