I always look forward to documentaries made by Stanley Nelson, a filmmaker who seems to have taken it upon himself to tell some of the most fascinating and necessary stories of black Americans in each of his works (which include Rise Up: The Movement that Changed America and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution). His latest endeavor is a rarity for him, in that its focus is on an individual and not on an organization or movement. Of course, when that individual is premiere jazz musician Miles Davis, it is a bit like explaining a movement that changed all of music.
In Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, Nelson has the unenviable task of detailing the creative genius and innovator through the fog of personal demons and general bad behavior, especially toward the women in his life. But the resulting film is visually captivating, as he simply tells the story from the beginning and lets Davis (often through his own words via his autobiography, given voice by actor Carl Lumbly) tell his own story, with supplemental interviews with those who knew him best. Through archival footage, photos and recordings, he tracks a musical evolution like few other musicians went through, if for no other reason than Davis managed to stay alive long enough to do so.
Davis was always on the lookout for racism and other forms of being treated like anything other than a master artist, but when he was given free reign to go in the musical directions he wanted to, the journey was uncanny and often resulted in albums that are considered the touchstones of jazz. But as he got older, he grew more experimental and gave over a great deal of control to the musicians he hand-selected for his band. The results in those cases divided the jazz community but were a symphony of sound and rarified fusion rhythms that defied genre. Hell, he even played with Prince a couple of times, both on stage and in the studio, and recorded some fairly straight-forward pop-song covers in his later years. What could be more radical for someone with his eclectic sensibilities?
Some of the most revealing and often quite heartbreaking interviews featured in Rebirth of the Cool are with the most important women in his life, including the famed dancer Frances Taylor, who ended up being his first wife, and French singer Juliette Greco, both of whom give insight into Davis’ process and temperament, especially when he let substance abuse to creep into his life, which he did on several occasions spread out over the decades. Equally curious was the way he opened up to the press in the last few years of his life, as if he decided it was important to get his real story out there before he wasn’t able to.
As the film’s title suggests, one of Davis’ big contributions to the world was redefining what it meant to be cool, and he did so with his music, his style and his persona. The raspy voice didn’t hurt either. I’m sure a four- or six-hour version of this documentary could be produced with little trouble or shortage of material, but for this American Masters doc (which should air on PBS next year), this exceptional two-hour take covers a whole lot of ground and gives the music center stage, as it should.
The film opens today for a two-week engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Stanley Nelson and Vince Wilburn Jr (Miles Davis’ nephew/bandmate) are scheduled to appear for audience discussion on October 4 (7:45 only), 5, and 6.
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