Tuesday, May 28, 2019

SIFF 2019: Cool and Hip and Angry and Sophisticated and Ultra Clean: Birth of the Cool Reveals Miles Davis in All His Complexity

Credit: Guy Le Querrec / Variety
 (Stanley Nelson, USA, 2018, 115 minutes)

"Being rebellious and black, a nonconformist, being cool and hip and angry and sophisticated and ultra clean, whatever else you want to call it--I was all those things and more."
--Miles Davis in Miles: The Autobiography

Just as Don Cheadle rasped away as Miles Davis in his underappreciated 2016 biopic, Miles Ahead, Carl Lumbly rasps away as the jazz great in Stanley Nelson's profile by reading passages from Davis's 1990 memoir.

It wouldn't work if Lumbly didn't capture Davis's grumble, so it's fortunate that he does (if anything, he sounds even more like Danny Glover, circa Sorry to Bother You). Carol Bash did something similar in her 2015 profile of Mary Lou Williams, The Lady Who Swings the Band, in which Alfre Woodard gives sympathetic voice to the pioneering pianist and composer.

Nelson (Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities) begins at the beginning with Davis's birth in Alton, Illinois in 1926. To Davis's words, he adds interviews from a wide swath of speakers, including neighbors, relatives, scholars, jazz innovators like Quincy Jones and Archie Shepp, and poet and professor Quincy Troupe, coauthor of Miles: The Autobiography (though Flea and the Roots are mentioned in the official synopsis, they appear to have ended up on the cutting room floor).

Photograph by AGIP / RDA / Everett / The New Yorker
Unlike many of his African-American peers, Davis was born to wealth and privilege, and gravitated to the trumpet as a teenager, but money and talent couldn't insulate him from the racism that permeated East St. Louis in the 1940s, and he longed to make his escape.

It wouldn't take much time. Just after graduating from high school, he was already playing with jazz luminaries Billy Eckstein, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. "The greatest feeling I ever had in my life--with my clothes on--is when I first met Diz and Bird," he remembers. "I was 18 years old."

The experience led him to move to New York in 1944, where he attended Juilliard by day and played 52nd Street clubs by night. By then, he’d already impregnated his high school sweetheart twice (unmentioned in the film, he would impregnate her a third time during a visit home in 1950).

Nelson speeds over this development quickly, possibly to avoid making his subject look worse than necessary, but stating that music always came first doesn't excuse the fact that Davis abandoned his growing family.

If we're meant to find his relationship with French singer Juliette Gréco romantic, it's hard to forget about Irene Birth, the hometown honey he discarded in favor of a more glamorous life. Through Greco, who appears in the film, Davis met the Left Bank's leading artists and intellectuals, like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, who treated him like an equal.

Andre SAS/Gamma-Rapho Getty Images
Nelson goes on to recount Davis's relationships with key collaborators like arranger Gil Evans, with whom he recorded the 1957 album Birth of the Cool, from which his documentary takes its name--and his descent into heroin addiction. After kicking the habit, he made up for lost time by signing to Prestige, putting together a quintet including John Coltrane, and then making the leap to Columbia.

Along the way, he met Frances Taylor, the dancer who adorns the cover of Someday My Prince Will Come (Emayatzy Corinealdi plays her in Miles Ahead), underwent the surgery that altered his voice, composed the score for Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour L'échafaud, and released Kind of Blue, the bestselling jazz album of all time (certified quadruple platinum in 2008).

Just as Nelson celebrated the sartorial style of the Black Panthers in Vanguard of the Revolution, he does the same for Davis in Birth of the Cool. He was always a sharp dresser, but when the serious money started to roll in, his looks grew sharper yet. Miles in the 1950s set the standard for cool with his crisp white shirts, narrow ties, and close-cut suits.

He wasn't indestructible, though, and money and talent couldn't insulate him from the racism that permeated the US in the Eisenhower Era, even in New York, "the slickest, hippest city in the world." An incident involving three NYPD detectives made headlines accompanied by images of the bandaged, blood-spattered musician. Personally and professionally, he was on top of the world, but he couldn't escape the times in which he lived.

Davis's seventh studio album for Columbia
He couldn't escape his own worst impulses either as he attempted to mold Frances, on the cusp of stardom, into the perfect housewife, marinated in booze and coke, and abused his wife just as his father had abused his mother. He would later regret that he hadn't treated her better, but by then it was too late. The marriage was over.

Intentionally or otherwise, it marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, since he proceeded to split with his previous group and put together a new one that included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and 17-year-old Tony Williams (all except for Williams, who passed away in 1997, appear in the film). He also met Betty Mabry who helped him to segue from the jazz world of the 1950s and ‘60s to the rock and funk world of the 1970s. Out went the dark suits and in came the low-cut tunics, the over-sized sunglasses, and the patchwork bell bottoms.

It was the era of Bitches Brew and On the Corner. Critic Greg Tate describes the blend of tabla, sitar, and distortion as "cosmic jungle music" made by the "hoodoo voodoo priest of music." It was a magical time that refilled Davis's coffers, but like every stylistic shift, it wasn't built to last. After a series of personal setbacks, he disappeared from public life. Drugs and paranoia consumed his days. Friends were afraid they'd lost him.

Just as Nelson neglected to say what became of Irene, who followed Davis to NYC, he neglects to say what became of Betty. After their year-long marriage, she launched a solo career that would find a new audience in 2007 when local label Light in the Attic began to reissue her 1970s output.

© Baron Wolman, Date Unknown
Davis's propensity to align himself with women of considerable achievement would culminate in his marriage to Cicely Tyson. With her help, he cleaned himself up and stepped into the light again, but Nelson also neglects to note when their union came to an end (they were married from 1981-1989). It's a weird pattern, especially since he treats Frances with so much respect, but that may be because she appears in the film, while Davis and Tyson, who are both very much alive, do not.

The filmmaker moves swiftly through the last several years of Davis's life, which weren't without incident, but seem a little sad, since he looked so frail. Instead of going quietly into that good night, he played every date he could handle and appeared on every talk show that would have him.

I saw him at London's Hammersmith Odeon in 1986 on the Tutu tour. True to form, he spent the bulk of the set with his sparkly back to the audience. Since it was exactly what I expected, I can't say that I was disappointed.

Photo: Getty Images / Vogue
By 1991, Miles Davis was gone. Though you'd expect his passing to mark the saddest moment in the film, the Phoenix-like Davis beat the odds by making it to the not-inconsiderable age of 65, since he was beset by numerous ailments, including sickle cell anemia.  

I don't expect a documentary, particularly one that clocks in at just under two hours, to include every fact and figure, but more details would've been ideal, though Birth of the Cool succeeds in most other respects, not least the way the editorial team (Lewis Erskine, Yusuf Kapadia, and Natasha Mottola) cut it to the rhythm of the music, particularly the montage-style year markers, which comes entirely from Davis's discography.

About her ex-husband, the late Frances Taylor Davis (1929-2018) concludes, "I don't regret, I don't forget, but I still love," which seems as fine a summation of Miles Davis's difficult and brilliant career as any.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool plays Wednesday, May 29, at the Egyptian and Friday, May 31, at the Uptown. For more information, click here.

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