Saturday, 16 May 2020

Movie review: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, dir Stanley Nelson (2019)

I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary though I felt, the next day, that the filmmakers lost some dramatic opportunities.

I'm not a big user of music and I have never been into jazz, but I am familiar with the kinds of music that Davis created because they are regularly used for soundtracks for movies and TV shows. If you knew nothing about Davis and decide to try this film, you would have already been prepared – whoever you are and wherever you live – for some of what you will see. You might know nothing about the events of the musician’s life but you will – without doubt – have heard his music at some point in your life. It’s that famous.

This explains the tendency of some of the interviewees to idolise the musician, despite his obvious faults. The movie uses a good deal of footage taken from videoed interviews conducted with people who were related to Davis, who worked with him, or who wrote about him. It also uses footage from other sources, including what was taken at concerts Davis gave at different locations in different countries. Then there’s archival footage – for example from when Davis would go on tour in Europe – that was filmed by people close to him at the time. All of this material is fused skilfully into a harmonious whole for the education and entertainment of the viewer.

Davis was no saint but the hushed tones that some people use when talking about him – people who knew him when he was alive – are off-putting. What happens to Davis’ first wife, Irene, is not clear, furthermore, though it appears that he had good relations with his children from that marriage. On the other hand, the film (as far as I, a complete novice, could discern) is factual or, at least, it’s thorough.

Like a colossus, Miles Davis straddled generations and was, like David Bowie, someone who was able to change his style quickly, unexpectedly and, sometimes, radically. But you can see the development, over time, of a stately oeuvre, something lasting and important. It wasn’t completed without a certain degree of disharmony. And the man himself, it is clear, was prone to suffering – as many people are – to alleviate which he used easily available means.

Perhaps the example of Miles Davis, or people like him, was behind my father’s decision to steer me away from the visual arts to a corporate career. I can never know. An unassailable truth, however, is that creative pursuits are highly rewarding, in a way that few activities in life are. It’s important to discover your true metier, your avocation. This film shows creativity in action in the life of one man. If you like music of any kind, watching this film will give you pleasure. If you are interested in creativity of any stamp, likewise. It can be profitably watched by a wide range of people, not just those who like jazz, bebop, funk, or pop music.

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