When it comes to music legends, they don’t come much cooler than Miles Davis. Among the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th century music, Davis was long overdue for a comprehensive documentary – especially after Don Cheadle’s self-indulgent biopic Miles Ahead that fused fact and fantasy into a freewheeling mess.
Miles’ life and work is discussed here, mostly chronologically, in a by-the-book documentary that combines the usual talking heads with a voiceover track from actor Carl Lumley quoting from the subject’s acclaimed autobiography. Thankfully, director Stanley Nelson had access to a rather exhaustive range of archival photos, video and recordings, which presents a real treasure trove for fans of the trumpeter. But coming in at two hours, there is a feeling that Birth of the Cool begins to drag somewhat.
The film does often attempt to probe deeper, and present not just a film about Miles Davis but a film about what it means to be black in the USA – an approach confirmed by the director at a panel discussion following a UK screening of the film. Unfortunately, this leads Birth of the Cool to occasionally feel like it is dealing with issues that are much bigger than its reach.
Still, the film devotes the majority of its runtime to the iconic subject, and it is here where the film is rather mediocre. While there’s no denying the immense quality of the wealth of footage and recordings presented throughout the film, the documentary’s structure and delivery is highly conventional and unimaginative throughout. Such an innovative pioneer and icon of pop culture deserves a film a little more adventurous than this cookie-cutter doc.