Sometimes documentaries are designed for viewers who already have a certain familiarity with the subject matter; they can enrich that understanding and present new information and new ways of thinking. However, other documentaries are meant for the total neophyte. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool falls firmly into the latter category, a disappointing summation of the great jazz musician’s career that barely scratches the surface —and will bore anyone to tears who already loves his music.
Davis is perhaps the greatest jazz composer and musician of the 20th Century. He wasn’t one of the founders, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, but he continually reinvented the genre during his forty-seven-year career. Therefore, it’s a smart choice by director Stanley Nelson to only briefly cover Davis’ childhood. It’s not that the material is uninteresting, but with only two hours to spend on nearly five decades of music, he might as well get right to it.
The film is filled with excellent archival clips and photographs, and is peppered with talking heads from many of Davis’ influential collaborators and acquaintances, but it (knowingly or unknowingly) is unfortunately loose with the chronology. While covering Davis’ many career highs in the 1950s, he’ll often be shown in pictures taken 10 years later. This isn’t always a sin, but when you’re trying to illustrate something that happened in 1955, you shouldn’t use photos from 1965, even if the average viewer might not notice.
There’s also a dearth of meaningful information or conversation about the impact of Davis’ music. His colleagues and critics are mostly employed to give anecdotes about his misanthropic ways (which are always great), but they rarely delve into the actual work. The soundtrack is wall to wall music, but there are curiously few actual live performances shown, so we don’t get a great feel for Davis as the performer. Part of this might be due to the film’s origin as an entry in PBS’ American Masters documentary series. Though the series occasionally produces excellent biographical documentaries, they’re usually by-the-numbers greatest hits collections. Birth of the Cool is no exception.
It’s startling that a figure as popular in the jazz world as Miles Davis has never had a great feature or documentary made about him. Perhaps a filmmaker with as strong relation to his own medium as Davis had to music will get the itch to make a movie. It may be that a single two-hour film just isn’t long enough to contain all the things he accomplished. Perhaps a documentary series is needed, or a massive seven-hour O.J.: Made in America-style film that can finally consider all of his work in the context of his personal life and the society that shaped him. Until that happens, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is probably the best we’ll get. It might spark an interest in someone who’s never heard of him, but it will leave anyone cold who has even a passing knowledge of the great trumpeter.