What does it take to be cool? An eternal question, without much of an answer. Does it lie in being true to yourself, or how about a killer wardrobe? Does it lie in not using terms such as ‘killer’? One man who would epitomise the term, a jazz composer who would revolutionise the underground clubs, bursting into the mainstream and adapting with the genre, was the marvellous Miles Davis. Extensively comprising stock-footage with interviews, Birth of the Cool is a sequential documentary from renowned documentary maker Stanley Nelson, responsible for key features on Black American and sporting history.
An archaeologist in the documentary field, Nelson emphasises the past, digging out the images, videos and interviews of his subject matter. A key issue lies in his sepia-tinted glasses, focusing too heavily on nostalgia, rather than going beneath the surface. Narrative flow is present, but lacks direction outside of timescale, without aim or intention. It makes for interesting quips and anecdotes about the man himself, but offers little in the way beyond a superficial overview. Visually, it is edited perfectly for a chronological piece, mapping out Davis’ life clearly from his birth to his maker, with seamless transitions between interview and flavour text or imagery.
Contextualising over half a century’s worth of celebrated music is no easy task and it messes with the film’s pacing, veering wildly from sluggishness (taking time to appreciate and evaluate Davis’ impact) to a rushing sentimentality (which glosses over tremendous amounts of detail). Entirely unlike his influences, Davis’ music may have ranged from the rhythmically slow tempo to the quick beat, but Nelson is unable to grasp the same talent of ducking between two differing styles.
Nelson’s decision to have Davis tell his own story makes for a tremendously interesting dynamic to the film, if only slightly macabre. It draws in a personal touch, a stamp of approval from the man himself, in a twisted sort of manner. Carl Lumbly (voicing the man himself) brings gravitas and a finely tuned note of humour in delivery. Knowing he cannot perfectly capture the vocals, he stays away from any lyrical attempts and instead emulates Davis’ timing, snappy rebuttals and tremendously slick control of words.
Reciting those words is one thing, but in securing some of the world’s key musicians in the jazz (and even early rock) scene, Birth of the Cool lends itself credibility by interviewing a wide array of previous band members, family friends and ex-wives. Only here do we receive a glimpse into the aggressive drug abuse Davis undertook, and more severely it is his ex-wives who mention the ‘occasional’ physical assault. Nelson seems to be sweeping some of the grittier, harsher truths under the rug, but allowing those who knew the man a moment of openness. It means Birth of the Cool is less a documentary with a reporting format, as it is a regurgitation of adoration and facts.
Those familiar with the cradle-to-grave overview of the king of cool will fail to garner much from the film. Newcomers to the art of smooth will gain more, with enough detail to provide an extensive (if shallow) overview of Davis’ accomplishments. Nelson, however, conducts a cardinal sin of documentary filmmaking – reverence. There’s a darkness behind the talent of this composer and trumpeter, but sadly Birth of the Cool seems content with maintaining the image, rather than the actual human behind the music. Discussions around these topics do merit inclusion in the overall evolving time-scale, but there is a definite discomfort when discussing them, as if Nelson is merely ticking boxes on the facts known to a wider crowd.