Sunday, September 29, 2019

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool



Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019)
Biopic / Music
Theme: Feel the Beat
Country: United Kingdom, USA
Director: Stanley Nelson
Production: Stanley Nelson, Nicole London / Firelight Films, Inc.
Duration: 115 min
Rating: 7
    Language: English, French
    Subtitles: English
    Distribution: Eagle Rock Entertainment
    Print source: Eagle Rock Entertainment
    Cinematography: Henry Adebonojo, Herve Cohen, Eric Coleman
    Editing: Lewis Erskine, Yusuf Kapadia, Natasha Mottola
    Sound: Benny Mouthon
Collaboration: Yle, U.S. Embassy, British Embassy Helsinki
Helsinki International Film Festival (HIFF) Love & Anarchy.
Viewed from a Vimeo link at home.
Kinopalatsi 5, Helsinki, 29 Sep 2019.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool production notes quoted by HIFF: "Miles Davis: Horn player, bandleader, innovator. Elegant, intellectual, vain. Callous, conflicted, controversial. Magnificent, mercurial. Genius. The very embodiment of cool. The man with a sound so beautiful it could break your heart."

"The central theme of Miles Davis’s life was his restless determination to break boundaries and live life on his own terms. It made him a star – it also made him incredibly difficult to live with, for the people who loved him most. Again and again, in music and in life, Miles broke with convention – and when he thought his work came to represent a new convention, he changed it again. Miles’s bold disregard for tradition, his clarity of vision, his relentless drive, and constant thirst for new experiences made him an inspiring collaborator to fellow musicians and a cultural icon to generations of listeners. It made him an innovator in music – from bebop to “cool jazz,” modern quintets, orchestral music, jazz fusion, rock ‘n’ roll, and even hip-hop."

"Featuring never-before-seen archival footage, studio outtakes, and rare photos, ​Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool​ tells the story of a truly singular talent and unpacks the man behind the horn." Production notes quoted by HIFF.

AA: Miles Davis was a giant of 20th century music, classically trained at what became the Juilliard School but soon inventing original forms of music, and when cool jazz went out of favour in the 1960s, he reinvented himself to even greater popularity in fusion jazz.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is an authorized film biography, made with the participation of the family and including interviews of his significant others ranging from Juliette Gréco who met Miles in Paris in the 1940s (92 years old as I write this) to Frances Taylor, Betty Davis, Marguerite Cantú and Jo Gelbard who was with Miles at his deathbed. (Cicely Tyson does not appear in an interview in the film). The interviews are very frank as is the habit in the current approach of authorized biographies of great and edgy artists. This film confronts Miles Davis's domestic violence and brutal behaviour with women.

The film is so sound-driven that one could just listen to it and turn the visuals off. Although cropped and overlaid with speech, it's a great soundtrack, obviously edited with tender and loving care, starting from the Billy Eckstine years, the early recordings that were later edited by Gil Evans as Birth of the Cool. With Gil Evans Miles Davis had his greatest friendship, based on mutual respect, and lasting a lifetime. Having seeing the film one should listen to the complete tracks from the soundtrack album on Spotify or elsewhere. The soundtrack album is not complete, omitting tracks heard in the film such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing "Hot House" or Juliette Gréco singing "Sous le ciel de Paris".

In 1949 Miles Davis went to Paris. "I loved the way I was treated." Juliette Gréco was his first romance, and Davis was met as an equal by Picasso and Sartre. Davis was depressed to come back to the U.S., "back to the bullshit". "I started to drift". Davis became a heroin addict. From the bottom he rose to play ballads, not afraid to be vulnerable, not afraid to tackle romantic standards, sounding pure, elegant and tasty.

In 1956 a cancerous growth was operated on his larynx, and he ignored doctors' orders about avoiding to talk. Thus Miles Davis got the rasp that never healed. A new quintet started to record with Rudy Van Gelder. In two days Davis got rid of his obligations to Prestige, and in two marathon sessions he recorded Workin', Relaxin', Steamin' and Cookin'.

Frances Taylor was the love of his life, a great ballerina who was cast in the original West Side Story but because of Miles Davis's mad and violent jealousy had to withdraw. Frances Taylor had to be reduced to his housewife. At the same time Davis put her on a pedestal in the album cover of Someday My Prince Will Come.

Kind of Blue made Miles Davis a popular mainstream star, a definition of being hip and cool. And angry and sophisticated. But in 1959 in front of the Birdland nightclub three police officers brutally assaulted him when he refused to move from the sidewalk where he was smoking. "No level of accomplishment protects you from the racial hostility". The incident "changed my whole life and whole attitude again, made me feel bitter and cynical again when I was starting to feel good about the things that had changed in this country." This kind of thing "stays with you for the rest of your life".

Frances Taylor inspired Davis to flamenco. He connected to his innate sense of duende and recorded Sketches of Spain. In 1969 Betty Mabry, soon Betty Davis, introducted Miles to the contemporary pop scene, which led to his opening to fusion jazz. Bitches Brew sold faster than any other jazz album in history. Jo Gelbard inspired David to painting and visual art. Usually Davis never looked back, but in the final years Quincy Jones invited him to recreate his cool jazz persona one last time.

Formally the film is a conventional television biopic. It is not a cinematic counterpart to avantgarde jazz. But it is very rewarding for a jazz amateur such as me, and I understand that for the connoisseur there are rare film clips and new revelations in the candid interviews. Especially grateful we should be for the passionate interview with Frances Taylor who died last year.

There is no soundtrack listing in the film's final credits. I have copied the incomplete Spotify listing in a separate blog entry.

Richard Brody in his scathing review in The New Yorker (29 Aug 2019) highlights the following colleagues interviewed:
"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."

Let's add Archie Shepp and Carlos Santana. And Miles's daughter Cheryl Davis and son Erin Davis.

Writing about Olen suomalainen I was reminiscing how Quentin Tarantino has deplored the inevitable and predictable "rise and fall" scenario in biopics of famous stars. This Miles Davis documentary solves this problem elegantly. The fall is undeniable, the dark side is not ignored, yet we have an experience of transcendence, a triumph of the spirit and a legacy that is durable and growing.

KATARIINA KANTOLA (HIFF):

Jazzmusiikin suurta tähteä Miles Davisia on sanottu usein cooliuden ruumiillistumaksi. Stanley Nelsonin ohjaama dokumentti ei tee tässä poikkeusta, mutta se pyrkii katsomaan viileyden taakse ja niihin ristiriitoihin, jotka myös vahvistivat Davisin miehistä taitelijamyyttiä.

Yhdysvaltalainen säveltäjä ja trumpetisti Miles Davis (1926-1991) ei koskaan pelännyt kokeilla uutta taiteellisessa ilmaisussaan. Ilmiömäinen musiikillinen lahjakkuus ja syvällinen oppineisuus loivat vahvan pohjan kontrollia rikkovalle luovuudelle ja omapäiselle rohkeudelle uudistaa jazzin määritteitä.

Davisille oli vapauttavaa kommunikoida musiikin kautta, mutta kontrolli oli muulla tavoin läsnä hänen elämässään. Amerikkalaisen yhteiskunnan rakenteellinen sekä henkilökohtaisesti koettu rasismi tukahduttivat häntä. Terveysongelmat ja päihderiippuvuudet pitivät artistia otteessaan. Rakkaimpiaan hän kontrolloi kylmästi mustasukkaisuudella ja väkivallalla.

Näyttelijä Carl Lumblyn lukemat sitaatit Davisin omaelämänkerrasta täydentävät lukuisten haastateltavien kertomia lämpimiä, ihailevia, kipeitäkin muistoja raadollisella rehellisyydellään. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool piirtää kokonaiskuvan alati liikkeessä olleesta suunnannäyttäjästä, joka johdatti jazzmusiikkia kohti uutta ja tuntematonta.

Katariina Kantola

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