In Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, Sundance vet Stanley Nelson offers a documentary broader in chronological scope than his most visible films (like Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and the stirring Freedom Riders), celebrating a musician whose career was not just long but constantly transformational. Serious jazz fans, who know most of what they’ll see here already, will wish Nelson had a Ken Burns-sized canvas, spending an hour or more on each chapter in Davis’ life instead of fitting it all into a feature’s running time; but for those with only a glancing knowledge or none at all, this is as good an introduction as you could want.
Seeing its title on a festival schedule, a jazz fan might reasonably expect a more tightly focused film — one exploring the late 1940s and early ’50s period when the trumpeter made the music (some of it gathered later on an LP titled Birth of the Cool) that would help define “cool jazz,” an evolution of bebop.
Instead, when the doc focuses on this period (after a fine summary of Davis’ youth and early musical experiences), its emphasis is more social than musicological. We hear about the transformative effect of the trumpeter’s time in Paris, where, though he wasn’t yet a star, he was embraced by the intelligentsia and started a love affair with actress/singer Juliette Greco. The latter appears here, recalling how Davis met Picasso, Sartre and others. He was “treated as an equal” in France, he would later say, giving him a new perspective on how blacks and whites might get along when distanced from the poisonous legacy of American slavery. After returning to America, the letdown was intense enough to lead to a heroin addiction.
George Wein, the legendary jazz promoter, recalls how other musicians insisted he shouldn’t give Davis any money during this period; the anecdote is a sad look at how Davis was transformed by drugs. It wouldn’t be the last time addiction turned him into a different person.
There was a hell of a comeback in store. Davis talked his way onto a set at Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival, which turned out to be something of an audition for Columbia Records. Nelson does a particularly good job of showing how Davis went over there: We hear the lush, romantic beauty of his take on “Round Midnight” while watching images of a spellbound crowd. Carlos Santana praises Davis for having the “courage to play a ballad” in a genre that prized Charlie Parker-like dexterity.
While writers like Farah Griffin, Gerald Early and Stanley Crouch examine the man’s life and music, valuable first-person observation comes from fellow musicians like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and James Mtume. The latter is helpful as the film follows Davis’ shift from the mode he described as “ultra-clean,” “sharp as a tack” to the more trendy style and sprawl-y fusion sounds he would bring to giant rock-oriented venues from the 1970s on.
The Davis of this period owed much to another musician not interviewed here — Betty Mabry, who was married to him for one year and would make pungent funk records under the name Betty Davis. By all accounts, she had a tremendous effect on the trumpeter’s style and musical tastes, but Cool spends more time on his romances with Greco, Cicely Tyson, and Frances Taylor. Davis’ personal life always competes here with talk of the many landmarks in his music — Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, the groundbreaking score he made for Louis Malle’s film Elevator to the Gallows.
But by drawing Davis’ own voice into the film (actor Carl Lumbly raspily reads excerpts from the autobiography written by Davis and Quincy Troupe), Cool never feels fractured. The film contains more rare footage and photos than can really be digested in two hours, and much is left off the table; most fans will wish this very enjoyable portrait lasted 10 or 12 hours, at a minimum.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production companies: Firelight Media, Eagle Rock Films
Director: Stanley Nelson
Producers: Stanley Nelson, Nicole London
Executive producers: Adam Barker, Michael Kantor, Terry Shand, Geoff Kempin
Editors: Lewis Erskine, Natasha Livia Mottola, Yusuf Kapadia
This article originally appeared on THR.com.