Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Miles Davis’ greatest hits

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Documentary film “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” tries to look around the greatest moments in the career of Miles Davis, and it did a fairly good job on the whole despite its several shortcomings. For instance, I was a little disappointed that the documentary does not go delve enough into its human subject as busily showing and telling one thing after another within its 115-minute running time, but, as a guy who is not that familiar with Davis’ career, I watched it with constant interest nonetheless, so I came to tolerate its rather dry, pedestrian storytelling approach to some degree.

At the beginning, the documentary focuses on how Davis developed his artistic talent during his early years. He was born in an affluent African American family residing in Illinois, 1926, and we hear about how young Davis came to be trained as a trumpet player at the insistence of his father, who sometimes did not show good examples to his children as frequently clashing with his wife at their home. Quite willing to hone his skill and talent more, Davis went to New York City in 1944 for studying in the Juilliard School, but he subsequently dropped out for joining the bebop quintet of Charlie Parker, and it did not take much time for Davis to distinguish himself far more than before.

Eventually, Davis went out for initiating his own career, and that led to the legendary recording sessions during 1949-1950, which gave birth to his first milestone album “Birth of the Cool”. After that album, several equally important albums including “Miles Ahead” and “Kind of Blue” followed, and these albums certainly put him on the top of his field. In addition to being a top-notch jazz musician, Davis surely knew how to assemble good musicians together, and a number of interviewees in the documentary eagerly tell us how Davis and his musicians often generated sublime musical moments via the synergistic improvisations among them.

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While jazz became quite popular in US during the 1950s, it was also wholeheartedly embraced in Europe, and Davis experienced a sort of cultural shock when he came to France, where he and many other African American jazz musicians were treated better with more acceptance and equality. As staying in France, he happened to be hired for the soundtrack of Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958), and his improvisational score for that melancholic crime melodrama film further boosted his substantial position in American jazz music.

In the meantime, his personal life went through a series of ups and downs. He had a serious drug addiction problem and then managed to recover from that in the early 1950s, but that was just the beginning of his lifelong struggle with drug addiction. Although he got some comfort and stability via his first wife Frances Taylor, he was frequently driven by paranoid and jealousy due to drug addiction, and Taylor, who died in 2018, frankly tells us how much she had to endure during her problematic married life with Davis. She was a promising actor/dancer during that time, but she had to give up what was supposed to her big career break as demanded by her husband, and she also suffered several incidents of domestic violence committed by him.

Around the time when Taylor finally left Davis, things got less optimistic for Davis and his field. Jazz became less popular as the American society entered the 1960s, and rock and pop music came to dominate over the music market in US, so it seemed that there was nothing much he could do except walking away from his dying spotlight.

Nevertheless, Davis somehow found a way to advance further with dramatic changes. He willingly tried a series of musical experiments as shown from “Bitches Brew” and several notable albums made during that period, and we hear about his willingness to try different things everytime. When he came to realize that he could do a big concert just like those rock musicians, he went all the way without any hesitation, and there is an amusing anecdote on when he decided to incorporate a certain ethnic instrument into his next album just because, well, that sounded interesting to him.

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However, there subsequently came another downturn in Davis’ life and career because of his ongoing drug addiction problem. As his physical condition became more deteriorated than before in the 1970s, he came to depend on drug and alcohol more than before, and he consequently became quite reclusive as stopping playing music for several years.

Fortunately, Davis made a comeback in the early 1980s, and he continued to advance as much as he could before his eventual death in 1991. As usual, he was not afraid of going along with new trends, and you may be a little amused to see him performing along with Prince on the stage. Even I can see that his performance during this period was relatively less stellar due to his age, but he still knew how to be cool and professional at least, as shown from his collaboration with Quincy Jones.

Overall, “Miles: Birth of the Cool” is more or less than a quick guide on those numerous successful points in Davis’ career, but it is still an engaging documentary thanks to the competent direction of director/co-producer Stanley Nelson, and I was glad to get to know a bit more about Davis and his considerable artistic development and contribution. As a matter of fact, I searched for his albums on the Internet not long after watching the documentary, so I guess it gets its main job done in case of me.

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