In an age where celebrity funerals are de rigueur, the documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool fits right in and feels like a home-going service three decades in the making. Music industry titans such as Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana share humorous and revelatory anecdotes about the jazz legend while saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bass guitarist Marcus Miller, and bassist Ron Carter recall what it was like working with the brilliant but temperamental artist in the film, which premiered last year at Sundance and is currently streaming on Netflix.
Filmmaker Stanley Nelson does a wonderful job tracking how Davis ascended from the awkward and diminutive middle-class son of a dentist in East St. Louis who attended Juilliard to a sartorially sophisticated superstar who drove the sexiest foreign cars and attracted the most beautiful women. His intensely large eyes, dark brown skin, and undeniable musical talent further punctuated the "duende" that many who knew Davis said he exuded. "We didn't just want to play with Miles Davis," says jazz drummer Lenny White. "We wanted to be Miles Davis."
Through Nelson's intricate chronology, it's easy to see why Davis is so beloved and how he masterfully created classics such "Birth of the Cool" (and embarked on a career-defining partnership with arranger Gil Evans), "Kind of Blue" (with famous saxophonist John Coltrane at his side), and "Sketches of Spain."
But in the nearly two-hour eulogy that is this fascinating film, there are some really ugly parts of Davis that cannot be revered or drowned out by lighthearted tales of yore, the seductive sound of his music, or the impressive volume of never-before-seen footage and photos of the legendary trumpeter looking and being cool. Nelson attempts to brace the viewer for the parts when Davis' violence against his former wives and girlfriends is addressed by foreshadowing it at the four-minute mark.
It is here that one of the jazz star's childhood friends recalls how Davis' parents fought all the time. Author Quincy Troupe, who co-wrote Miles: The Autobiography with the musician, then weighs in by saying that Davis "absorbed" his father's anger toward women and later emulated the way his father physically abused his mother. Actor Carl Lumbly, who narrates the film and serves as the the voice of the origins story Davis shared in his autobiography, then intones: "I remember my mother picking up things and throwing them at my father. He got so mad with her, he punched her. He knocked a couple of teeth right out of her mouth. It had to affect her somehow. Although I don't really know how."
Later in Birth of the Cool, Davis' now deceased ex-wife, dancer Frances Taylor Davis, recalls Davis hitting her after a night on the town when she passingly mentioned she found Quincy Jones handsome. Davis, who had undergone two hip surgeries and was indulging in a dangerous cocktail of cocaine, percodan, scotch, and milk to ease the pain, struck his wife before she could even complete her sentence. "It was so fast, I saw stars," Taylor Davis recalls, still sounding gobsmacked all those decades later. "I was on the floor. It was the most unbelievable thing that ever happened to me. I'd never been hit in my life. That was the first. And it wasn't going to be the last unfortunately."
While Nelson respectfully handles Taylor Davis' recollection, he also dramatizes it with a rapid series of photos of the couple and a drum solo that are wholly unnecessary. The better tack would've been to not play any music at all and perhaps show one or two photos while Taylor Davis spoke. Instead, there is just something about this scene that makes it clear that Nelson sympathizes with Davis more than he should. While Birth of the Cool is the only Davis documentary to fully take on his abuse of women at all, the execution leaves much to be desired.
Yes, Davis grew up seeing his dad hit his mom. However, by the time Taylor Davis talks about her ex-husband hitting her, it's a whole hour and five minutes after Davis' childhood traumas are established. Nelson also emphasizes Davis and Taylor Davis' admissions that he was incredibly possessive and jealous of all the attention Taylor Davis received while at the same time, abusing alcohol and drugs.
Again, these are all documented reasons why men are driven to abuse women. But Nelson's benediction of Davis relies too heavily on extenuation when it comes to domestic abuse and not enough on facts. Davis was a black cultural icon and hero and he was cool and he was brilliant. But he also hit women. Period. This includes Marguerite Cantu, the mother of his youngest son Erin Davis (who appears in the film). In the film, she praises the the prolific musician's talent but also talks about dating him until his abusiveness became too much.
Davis suffered his own abuse at the hands of a brutal white cop during an altercation in the 1960s, and throughout different phases of his life, he abused and destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol. When he kicked the addictions and kicked off a career comeback with the help of his third and final ex-wife, the indomitable Cicely Tyson, in the late-'80s and early-'90s, it seemed like he was going to finally be able to enjoy all of his hard work. But in 1991, his body gave out and he died at age 65.
Even in death, Davis' mystique and coolness live on and Birth of the Cool truly encapsulates his confidence and competence even as it fumbles through his most damning shortcomings. Davis was more than his accomplishments but also more than the bad things he did to himself and others. Although cancel culture suggests otherwise, artists can be capable of creating beautiful work and doing horrible things. Death doesn't absolve Davis of his terrible acts but it does make the sum total of his life easier to comprehend.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is streaming on Netflix.