Miles Davis was without doubt one of the 20th century’s great creative forces. The narrative of Stanley Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is drawn from passages of Davis’s 1989 autobiography, which actor Carl Lumbly delivers in a convincing impersonation of the trumpeter’s signature rasp, and illustrated with montages of historical photos, live footage and interviews with Davis’s friends, family and fellow musicians.
Nelson guides us through the radical changes Davis made to jazz over nearly half a century. We learn something of his taste in clothes, cars and women; of the rarefied sense of style that was another facet of his self-expression. But Nelson also explores the racism Davis experienced living in America, his resultant anger, and the lovers and others who were often on the receiving end of this rage.
This is not the first film about Miles Davis, nor is it likely to be the last. Don Cheadle’s 2015 biopic Miles Ahead was more salacious; Murray Lerner’s 2004 Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue went deeper into the music. But for a primer on who Miles was, what he did and why he matters, Stanley Nelson’s documentary will be hard to beat. — Nick Bollinger
“A tantalizing portrait: rich, probing, mournful, romantic, triumphant, tragic, exhilarating, and blisteringly honest. If you were 15 years old and walked into this movie having never heard of Miles Davis, you’d walk out touching the essence of who he is… If you’re a… fanatic from way back and think you already know everything about him, it… fills in nuances of the man that feel fresh and new.” — Owen Gleiberman, Variety