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Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis’s musical career stretched over nearly 50 years and covered a gamut of stylistic changes. As a teenager in the 1940s, he was studying musical theory at Juilliard College by day while jamming with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie at night. Then he hopped off to France to conduct an affair with Juliette Greco (shame about the two babies at home) and write a film score for Louis Malle.

He returned to a USA which was unable to cope with mixed-race relationships so he seems to have just dumped Greco in Europe. But this radicalised him, as did a bloody beating by police when he was smoking outside one of his own concerts. His music became more experimental, and he clashed with studio bosses who wanted to put a white woman on an album sleeve to entice white yuppies who were turning towards jazz.

After a dabble with flamenco, the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Davis had a mid-life crisis which led him to marry various younger women, who provided him with the wardrobe of someone half his age. He also took a turn towards funk, producing many of the sounds which would be later sampled by hip hop artists. His motivation, however, appears to have been largely financial. While rock musicians were playing lucrative festivals, he was playing three times a night in small jazz clubs. He wanted part of the action.

Following several drug-crazed lost years at the end of the 1970s, he once more employed a troupe of younger musicians and started to bother the album charts again. This eventually resulted in a collaboration with Prince, and there’s a great clip in the film of the two great musicians sharing a stage. Eventually his lifestyle caught up with him and Davis eventually died in 1991.

Stanley Nelson Jr’s film has decided to cover all this and more, with a mixture of vintage clips, talking heads and readings from Davis’s autobiography. The advantage in this approach is that it offers us some sort of context and chronology and lets us know a little about what led on to what. It also provides a stab of explaining how, for example, Davis’s personal experience of racism fed into his music.

And yet it often feels like reading a shopping list. No sooner have we covered one incident or album, than we’re rushing onto the next one. So we hear several times about Davis’s waxing and waning drug addiction, but don’t really have a sense of how this impacted his work (notwithstanding the lost second half of the 1970s mentioned above).

Nowhere is the absence of critical depth more frustrating then in the treatment of his relationships with his various wives. The abusiveness that Davis’s father showed to his mother was passed on to the son. “Favourite ex-wife” Frances tells stories of serial physical abuse, largely under the influence of excessive drug use (it is arguable how much the film uses the drug use to apologise for this abuse).

The abuse was not just physical. Frances was an aspiring actor, who won an early role in West Side Story (this could even have been the premiere, the film is unclear). After the first few rehearsals, Davis forbade her from going again, as her place was in the kitchen. After that, she took occasional breaks from her kitchen duties to forelornly stare at her ballet shoes. The way in which this story is told is heart-rending.

Although the film is to be credited for its refusal to descend into blind hagiography, it is here that it is at its weakest. Having brought this information out into the open, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Are we supposed to blame Davis for his actions? To pity him? Does his artistic genius excuse his general shittiness as a person (as one talking head seems to imply)? No time to think about any of this, its time to move onto the next event,

There has been a trend among some recent films about musicians, both to provide a fictional account and just to concentrate on one small period of their career, often the time after the paparazzi have given up caring what they did. Nico 1988 is one of the most successfully artistically. Now not every film has to cover that pattern, but thinking of these film shows up how little depth a 50-year biography is able to cover.

Parts of Birth of the Cool are astounding. The talking heads are not just B-list celebrities who were free that afternoon but Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones. And while jazz is not my first love, I can recognise how much any one of Davis’s periods contributed to the development of music as an art form.

And while some of the analysis is frustratingly shallow, it does set you off thinking. In the 1940s, jazz musicians were trying to prove themselves as intellectually equal to their classical forebears, hence the importance to Davis of studying at Juilliard. Only a few decades later, their main competition was brainless rock music. Davis’s history is also the history of jazz trying to keep up and stay relevant.

So, Birth of the Cool is worth seeing. You just may have to provide any deeper analysis of what’s going on yourself.

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