Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Stanley Nelson’s new documentary explores the life and works of Miles Davis, his musical contributions and various relationships. They didn’t call him ‘the man with the horn’ for nothing.

Inevitably covering a lot of the same ground as 2001’s thorough The Miles Davis Story, Birth of the Cool distinguishes itself by having the trumpeter’s own words raspily read by actor Carl Lumbly. This autobiographical element adds another layer of insight into the duality that emerges from both documentaries: the darkness of his personality and the brightness of his horn; controlling in his relationships but democratic in his music.

Consensus also forms around Miles’ sense of artistic propulsion – he’s quoted as saying that looking back would kill him, like a kind of jazz shark. There’s an echo of a story from the earlier doc where he says he stopped playing ballads because he loves to play them; here he’s asked why he doesn’t marry his partner Juliette Gréco and his answer is the same: because he loves her. Both stories shed light on the man’s restlessness, an aversion to contentedness in his personal as well as artistic life.

This creates a rounded picture of a complicated figure, who found beauty in songs beyond even their composers’ vision – look at his versions of Disney’s Some Day My Prince Will Come or Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time. It’s testament to his allure that there are enough stories about Miles to fill a pair of two-hour documentaries, and you can be sure they’ll continue to be told time after time.

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