'Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool' is a Proper Beginning

Stanley Nelson offers a rich introductory portrait of the jazz legend, whose life story is history.

A still from Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool by Stanley Nelson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Guy Le Querrec

What more can be shared of Miles Davis that hasn’t been covered in numerous books, a recent biopic starring Don Cheadle, and even what seemed to be the definitive documentary, 2001’s award-winning The Miles Davis Story? Necessary or not, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is a fine addition to what’s already available, for fans and newcomers alike. The latter gain access to never before seen footage of Davis, while the latter receives a proper introduction to the legendary trumpeter if this is their first stop in appreciation.

The documentary is directed by Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) and produced for American Masters, and there’s a deserved dependability from both channels. The latter offers a standard in biographical excellence while Nelson is an icon in the chronicling of African-American history, working here again with editor Lewis Erskine (Freedom Riders) for a fluidly concise yet extensive picture of the jazz legend. Davis is the sort of figure whose life is not just biography but also history, both in his having driven events beyond his own experiences and also for having been a part of the big picture of world culture throughout his lifetime.

Birth of the Cool is itself a rather uncool film, as it sticks to the traditional structure expected of a PBS documentary. But standard talking head interviews and archival footage compiled side by side don’t make a doc a satisfying experience on their own. Often it’s a matter of whom is on display in those interviews, and not even necessarily what it is they have to say. Quincy Jones talking about Davis is a treat no matter what. It doesn’t matter if I recall what all he said. Nelson doesn’t go overboard with quantity over quality, either, keeping the number of academic and personal witnesses manageable and allowing a minimal amount of clips to be savored.

As with any biographical documentary — or with any documentary period — there are likely to be fans and experts with more to say on Birth of the Cool‘s pros and cons in its portrait of Davis. I’m not very familiar with the life or work, but that makes me part of the demographic who takes this film as an introduction to both, and I will always appreciate a doc that leans heavily into the subject’s own voice and art. Davis’ music used as the score and Carl Lumbly‘s narrated portrayal of Davis (by way his autobiography) go a long way for me while critical commentary and anecdotes from, say, wife Frances Taylor are a bonus.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.