Miles Davis was one of the biggest jazz greats to come out of the last century. Even people who didn’t listen to jazz knew Miles Davis. And a big part of that is because he never confined himself to one genre or one sector of music. He was an innovator. He was determined to carve his own path and create his own unique sound in the music industry. The 2019 documentary, Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool highlighted these facets of Davis in a way that felt exciting.
Born in 1926, Miles Davis grew up in East St. Louis, a place he says was “racist to the bone.” He started playing the trumpet at 13 by the time he was in high school, he was playing in jazz bands and combos even impressing and eventually befriending men like Charlie Parker. After finding a style that was uniquely his, he became bigger and more respectable. His sound was described as romantic, pure, elegant, and even tasty in the documentary, one person even saying, “I want to feel the way Miles Davis sounds.” Davis created jazz standards and pop tunes and was known for promoting group improvisation, creating some beloved songs in the jazz world.
Throughout Davis’ 46-year recording career, he played a variety of styles, never sticking to just one thing. His son in the documentary even said that his father didn’t even like to keep his old records in the house as he was only interested in what he was currently doing. Davis was a huge influence in the development of bop, cool jazz, and the jazz-rock fusion of the late 1960s. He is known for releasing two of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. 1959’s Kind of Blue and 1970’s Bitches Brew were huge hits, yet vastly different. This is a testament to what made Miles Davis so great.
This documentary has something for everyone. Fans of Miles Davis and people who’ve never heard of him will walk away from this documentary content in awe. I want to note that this review comes from a person who is very new to jazz and the history behind many of the iconic musicians of old. And I, a person who knew very little about Miles Davis, came out feeling like I’d been given an intimate and thoughtful look into who he was and the incredible life he lived. That goes to show that fans of his will enjoy how thorough this documentary is. And for superfans, the documentary holds rare clips and interviews with celebrities that hadn’t been interviewed about Davis before.
Birth of the Cool, directed by documentarian Stanley Nelson, takes you on a trip through Miles Davis’ life, set up similarly to many documentaries, with a mix of talking heads, archival footage, interviews and performances, voiceover, and photos of Davis throughout his life.
Speaking from a stylistic point of view, the rapid-fire clips and photographs of a specific year in history to show the passage of time and serve as a transition to a new time in Davis’ life were very well done. The documentary did a fantastic job reminding viewers of the context of the year being discussed. The voiceover of Miles Davis recalling details of his life was also a very nice touch. This method made it feel as if Davis himself was sharing these profound details. Hats off to the voice actor Carl Lumbly as I truly thought it was Miles Davis’ voice spliced together from various interviews until I looked it up. Using this Davis-esque voice giving us a reflection on moments in his life was very effective, making the audience feel as if they’re being told the story in the same room as him. It’s even more impressive knowing that many of the voiceovers come from true quotes spoken by Davis.
Birth of the Cool does an amazing job at compiling all you’d need to know about Miles Davis’ life. From what it was like growing up wealthy but still dealing with the effects of Jim Crow laws to how his raspy voice came from him not giving his voice enough time to heal after a throat operation, you get to learn about his background and personality, even down to him calling up bandmates to play with him and not even saying who he was or where to meet before hanging up. One of the highlights of the documentary for me was seeing Davis perform with Prince. That sort of crossover was so interesting to see. These were some quotes from the documentary that really stuck out to me.
“I don’t need to talk. Music is talking to ‘em when everything’s right.”
“Miles was the personification of cool, the mythical hero.”
“Being into Miles was the definition of being hip.”
“Either you’ve got it, or you don’t. And being old isn’t gonna help you get it.”
As the documentary goes through the greatest parts of Davis’ life, they don’t shy away from touching on the low points of his life. Trying to be successful in a prejudiced society was not easy and this led to Davis abusing drugs through the course of his life. It was this drug use that led to breaking points where he isolated himself or abused his romantic partners. While some documentaries tend to take the most shocking aspects of a person’s life and highlight it for intrigue and discourse, Birth of the Cool doesn’t do this. The documentary doesn’t shy away from the faults of Davis, but it does give context. This doesn’t excuse the actions of Davis of course, but it does help bring an empathetic lens to these darker points in his life.
As the documentary reaches the tail end of Davis’ life, viewers are shown how he returned in 1980 after about six years of not picking up his trumpet. One of the interviewees theorizes that Miles Davis needed that time away to get clean and get reinspired so he could get back to living. And in that final decade of his life, he came with a vigor that was a treat to watch. Then the documentary comes to the end of his life. Miles Davis died from a stroke in 1991 and the documentary includes an interview with his partner who was at the hospital with him the day he died. Hearing her recount and final words from the many interviewees who knew and loved him was very touching. And while it brought a melancholy tone to the ending, the final line brought back the whole purpose of this documentary: To educate; to remember. “There won’t be many Mileses again.” That line was perfect end to Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.
Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool is a great bridge between fans and those who only know him by name to come together and to appreciate Miles Davis for the amazing trumpeter, innovator, and creator that he was. This documentary is currently streaming on Netflix, and I definitely recommend you check it out. Fans of all music genres will walk away feeling full, like they’ve just seen into a legend’s soul, and now they’re better for it.
Written by Kristen Petronio