Review: Portrait of a disturbed and brilliant artist

By Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Miles Davis was a genius. Miles Davis was also a bona fide jerk. Then again, he was a genius.

That genius is on full display in the documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” a well-made account of both the man’s achievements and his jerkiness. If director Stanley Nelson leans more on the achievements, well, who wants to watch a documentary on jerkiness?

A still from "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" by Stanley Nelson.

That jerkiness seems to have involved domestic abuse, drug abuse and abusiveness in general. Miles was born into a wealthy family, gained fame and success early and seemed to expect and receive special treatment throughout his life. He was undoubtedly influenced by his parents’ tumultuous relationship, and an early stay in comparatively color-blind Paris opened his eyes to America’s racism. Thus his jerkiness had undeniable roots.

But oh, the music. During the ‘50s and ‘60s Davis changed the nature of jazz with his sweet-sounding horn, his encouragement of improvisation and yes, his cool. The film lingers on his work with John Coltrane, his faith in his bandmates to match his own musical heights and his immense popularity.

The movie employs talking head interviews (friends, lovers, kin, sidemen), a generous number of taped performances and an uncanny voiceover of Miles’ own words by Carl Lumbly. It highlights – appropriately – classics like “Sketches of Spain,” “Miles Ahead” and “Kind of Blue.” It also tries to equate that brilliant period with later sludge, but the videotape, as they say, doesn’t lie. The dude was incredible for a couple of decades; that should be enough.

The man’s influence on virtually all jazz is undeniable and many of the young players he put the spotlight on are today’s grand masters. Watch this, then put on “Kind of Blue” and marvel at the beauty, the invention and, yes, the cool.

“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool”


Not rated

Running time” 115 minutes