Does a movie about a boldly original artist have to be a work of aesthetic audacity in itself? And what’s the difference if it isn’t? Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” made for the PBS series “American Masters,” isn’t such a film. It’s made with deference to the encyclopedia-like conventions of popular nonfiction filmmaking, a conventionality that works to the disadvantage of the presentation of Davis’s music, its historical context, and the evocation of the artist’s personality and experiences. Davis’s music provides pleasure, excitement, surprise, shock, and energy; the movie has a rote and dutiful air. There’s some significant information in the movie, which emerges from interviews that Nelson has done with a variety of people who knew Davis personally, even intimately, and also with scholars, who bring knowledge and insight. Yet it’s hard to imagine those who love Davis’s music finding much to love in the treatment of the music in the film—or those who don’t love it yet being inspired by it, either. And the movie’s formulaic approach serves its journalistic aims just as poorly.
Throughout, the movie doesn’t so much coördinate voice and music as it plasters voice onto music, as if in fear that too much musical performance heard (and even seen) without interruption for more than ten or a dozen seconds would bore or frustrate viewers who lack a preëxisting ardor for jazz. An opening title card states that the music heard is Davis’s, except where noted, and that the text of the voice-over narration (performed by Carl Lumbly) is entirely by Davis—and, from the start, the text overwhelms both the music and the images, as narration and music play on the soundtrack at the same time as still photos and film clips crowd the screen in a merely illustrative montage of visual wallpaper. Davis was born in 1926; that number appears onscreen, introducing a rapid-fire montage of familiar nineteen-twenties iconography of flappers and Prohibition, streetcars and propeller planes. Much of the narration comes from Davis’s autobiography (which he wrote with Quincy Troupe), and this text, too, is cut and pasted, joining disparate passages to deliver the desired information in brief, contrived packets. The indiscriminate slew of still photos that accompany the spoken text is, for the most part, adorned with nervous panning and zooming. (The condition could be called Ken-Burnsitis.)
There are movies that bring aesthetic imagination to portraits of artistic subjects. Some notable ones, such as Shirley Clarke’s “Ornette: Made in America,” about Ornette Coleman, or Michelle Memran’s “The Rest I Make Up,” about María Irene Fornés, treat subjects who were alive at the time of the filming, and whom the filmmakers filmed in person, with reference to their personal connections, relationships, shared experiences. These films don’t just provide information; they provide a sense of connection, of contact. Nelson didn’t film his subject: Davis died in 1991, at the age of sixty-five. What he does have, though, as a point of potential personal connection to Davis, is a vast archive of Davis’s work—a trove of performances, interviews, writings, even art work by Davis. It’s a familiar archive, one that any of us can access, and that ubiquity is something for a filmmaker to overcome, in restoring the wonder that any of it exists at all. “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” treats it instead as nearly disposable, fungible, ordinary. The quantity of archival material becomes an impediment to a sense of passion for any bit of it; not once does the movie offer a sense of stopping still with awestruck admiration, of developing a trope of form or style that fosters a moment of discovery.
Where Nelson’s firsthand, immediate engagement is implicit throughout, and where the movie provides its greatest thrill, is in his interviews with a wide range of people with a long-standing connection to Davis—musicians with whom Davis performed, including the saxophonist Jimmy Heath (with whom he recorded in 1953), the drummer Jimmy Cobb (who worked with Davis from 1958 to 1962), and the three surviving members of Davis’s great mid-sixties quintet (the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, the pianist Herbie Hancock, and the bassist Ron Carter), and Davis’s longtime collaborator the arranger and composer Gil Evans. We also hear the reflections of such scholars as Farah Jasmine Griffin, Tammy L. Kernodle, Stanley Crouch, and Jack Chambers; the recollections of longtime friends of Davis, such as Cortez McCoy and Sandra McCoy, Davis’s childhood friend Lee Ann Bonner; and the reminiscences of the concert organizer George Wein, among those of many other participants.
Yet there’s no distinction to the filming of these interviews, which are done in bright yet manicured light in the form of talking heads, neither close enough for intimacy nor distant enough for a sense of physicality. Their remarks are cut down to the briefest of sound bites, delivering specific bits of information that drive the movie ahead. There’s no sense of dialogue between them and Nelson, no sense of a question posed or another aroused, no sense of continuity of ideas, of curiosity, of the free play of memory, of anything resembling a conversation, let alone a relationship.
Nelson allows—or, rather, compels—his interview subjects to shoulder the brunt of the work. His voice isn’t heard on the soundtrack; he isn’t seen. Because the narration is entirely in Davis’s literary voice (and Lumbly’s spoken one), the filmmaker is present only in his shaping of the material, in his choices of what to include and to what end. This faux objectivity makes “Birth of the Cool” reminiscent of another contemporary strain of documentary filmmaking, the immersive or observational documentary. Like those films (a pair of current examples are “Honeyland” and “Jawline”), “Birth of the Cool” creates a sealed-off, one-way sense of observation; it limits, in advance, by fiat, the kinds of information that the movie can include.
Some of the film’s most noteworthy sequences involve the racism that Davis endured, and the racial implications of Davis’s public image and rise to fame. The movie highlight Davis’s role, as an elegant, stylish, wealthy, and uncompromising black American, in fostering a sense of racial pride, for which, Heath says, Davis was “Exhibit A.” The drummer Lenny White says, “Miles Davis wore slick clothes, drove fast cars, all the women, and everything. We didn’t just want to play with Miles Davis, we wanted to be Miles Davis.” The role was distinctly gendered, Griffin says: Davis presented an ideal of “a kind of masculinity, a kind of black man who takes no shit.” One example of his exacting sense of principle was his insistence that the cover of his 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come” feature a photograph of a black woman—Davis’s wife at the time, Frances Taylor.
The most extraordinary presence in the film is that of Taylor, a dancer, who was Davis’s first wife. She and Davis met in 1958 and married in 1960; she left him in 1965 (and died last November, at the age of eighty-nine). In her interview with Nelson, she speaks of the romantic excitement of their life together, of her involvement in his art; among other things, she introduced him to flamenco, resulting in his album “Sketches of Spain.” (Later in the film, Nelson also cites the influence of Davis’s second wife, the singer Betty Mabry, who played a significant role in Davis’s turn, in the late sixties, to electric instruments and rock-funk rhythms—and who is also on the cover of one of Davis’s albums.) Taylor discusses Davis’s jealousy of her personal and artistic independence—she was cast as a dancer in the original production of “West Side Story,” and he insisted that she quit the show and devote herself to their life together. As she tells Nelson, “What I ended up doing was performing in the kitchen.” She also speaks of Davis’s romantic jealousy and the violence to which it gave rise—she once told Davis that she found the composer and arranger Quincy Jones handsome, and Davis hit her. “That was the first, and it wasn’t going to be the last, unfortunately,” she says. (With astounding tastelessness, her account of Davis’s violence is accompanied, on the film’s soundtrack, with an overlaid drum solo.)
Taylor connects Davis’s violence to the cocktail of drugs—prescription and recreational—and alcohol that he was using and abusing. Davis describes the aftermath of his Paris tour in 1949 and 1950—the anguish of his return to the relentless racism of the United States—as precipitating his heroin addiction. He kicked the habit a few years later (owing to the intervention of his father, a prosperous dentist). Then, in 1959, Davis—taking a cigarette break in the street between sets that his band was playing at a Manhattan jazz club—was beaten by a police officer and arrested, an incident that left him shaken and bitter. (The horrific attack proved to be a major public event, nearly sparking a riot, but the movie offers little context.) It precipitated his use of drugs. So did his chronic pain from a degenerative hip condition (resulting in major surgery in the mid-sixties), and so did pain from an injury from a car accident, in 1972.
The film includes an interview with Marguerite Cantú, with whom Davis had a relationship; she says that, at first, he was “clean” and “healthy,” adding, “I knew that Miles was getting back into drugs, even though he hadn’t been doing them around me, because he was getting paranoid a lot. He was violent; he was abusive. I said, ‘You know, I’m not gonna live like this.’ ” The movie details Davis’s heavy cocaine use in the late nineteen-seventies, a time when he wasn’t performing; it credits his third wife, the actress Cicely Tyson (she and Davis were married from 1981 to 1988; she’s not interviewed in the film), with helping Davis to kick drugs. In an interview in the film, the artist Jo Gelbard, a woman who was in a relationship with Davis in his later years, speaks tenderly of his temperament in those times.
In a trio of clips that end the film, Cantú and Taylor speak admiringly of Davis—“I don’t regret, I don’t forget, but I still love,” Taylor says—and Davis’s friend, the artist Cortez McCoy, remembers him tearfully, saying, “Of course I loved him. He was like a brother who did dumb things, and you accepted it.” While facing up to Davis’s violence toward women, Nelson relies on these comments as a sort of benediction, if not a kind of absolution, as if suggesting that, if the women who were among his victims still speak of Davis with love, so may we all.
Yet there’s more to be said on the subject. The writer Eric Nisenson was a friend of Davis’s from 1978 to 1981 and interviewed him frequently; in 1982, he published the Davis biography “ ’Round About Midnight.” When it was reissued, in 1996, Nisenson added a new preface, in which he expressed regret about not having written more fully about Davis’s violence toward women, which Davis himself revealed to him and which he called “well known throughout the jazz community.” Nisenson writes there of Davis’s relationship with a woman called, pseudonymously, Daisy, who was living with him. One night, Davis summoned Nisenson to his home, on West Seventy-seventh Street, and told him that he had broken Daisy’s jaw, leaving her hospitalized. “ ‘So, what do you think, Eric. Am I an asshole?’ ” Davis asked him. Nisenson expressed his anger to Davis and asked, “How could you do such a thing?” Davis’s response was, “I meant to pull my punch. I know how to pull my punch.” Nisenson died in 2003; the film includes no interview with anyone who’s identified as Daisy, and nobody who’s interviewed in the film mentions the assault. No one refers to or quotes from Nisenson’s book. It’s only one example, albeit a major one, of the results of Nelson’s narrow artistic approach. Were such discussions included in the film, had Nelson expanded its purview to include the full spectrum of the archive, had he pursued a freer form and a wider scope of discussion with its participants, the concluding grace note might ring somewhat differently.