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Film Review

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool - A Film By Stanley Nelson (2 DVD)

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Miles Davis
Birth of the Cool: A Film by Stanley Nelson
Eagle Entertainment
2020

The two-DVD package of Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool -A Film by Stanley Nelson reminds potential viewers to interpret the title broadly rather than literally. To be sure, the award-winning filmmaker and historian delves deeply into the conception and execution of that landmark music in his near two-hour piece of cinema. But his scholarly investigation is ultimately the means to an end, that is, to point out this particular milestone was merely the first of many 'The Man with the Horn' reached during the course of his forty-year plus career.

With just enough attention to detail, Stanley Nelson is nevertheless appropriately circumspect as he touches all the necessary bases of Davis' personal and professional life. In doing so, he fashions a fairly comprehensive bio-pic that also functions well as a career overview, especially in combination with the complementary performance footage in this set, the end result of which will not only refresh the memories of long-time fans as well as pique the curiosity of more casual viewers, but also elucidates how Miles Davis came to embody a the rapidly-evolving attitude referenced in the name of this film. Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957) was the launching of a process by which he forged a style all his own, based on innate confidence in his own abilities combined with an unceasing courage to innovate.

Nevertheless, in keeping with that traditionalist demographic of the jazz community that listened and looked askance at much of the man's most idiosyncratic work over the years, Stanley Nelson does betray some selective perspective late in the movie. In doing so, he somewhat mutes the visceral impact arising from Davis' comeback from his Seventies hiatus and that in turn gives somewhat short shrift to works like On The Corner (Columbia, 1972) that have come to hold almost as much musically stylistic sway over subsequent generations as Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) profoundly influenced their antecedents. Still, arguably slight as it is, the lapse may still only be readily-discernible to avid fans.

In lieu of ancillary footage from what was originally conceived for PBS' 'American Masters' series, a sixteen-page booklet of prose and photos enclosed within these hardbound covers follows the stages of the film's development, all the way from narration to the designated musical cues in the sound (the inclusion of some of Miles' own original art is a real bonus). And that linear exposition renders this second DVD a seamless extension of the film's latter scenes; with the exception of twenty-minute plus minutes of "Ife" from 1973, none of this roughly seventy-five minutes of concert video duplicates what's contained on Live at Montreaux: Highlights 1973-1991 (Eagle Vision, 2011).

Unlike at some other junctures of his career where he might leave the stage altogether during shows, Davis is fully and completely engaged during these early to mid-eighties performances. Following Miles' nods, abrupt bleats on the trumpet or an isolated hammering on his own keyboard, members of the band including guitarist John Scofield and bassist Darryl Jones (now a regular on The Rolling Stones' tours!?) exhibit intense awareness and concentration on his lead(s).

As a result, a lean ensemble including electric keyboards and percussion—the pristine audio of which might better have been specifically credited here—renders equally insinuating and engrossing numbers such as "Hopscotch" (appearing twice). Still, such absorption in the musicianship is arguably no more deeply so than watching Miles himself almost constantly prowl the stage as he ponders the next direction(s) in which to move.

Duly noted in Matt Phillips' no-nonsense liner essay here, a plethora of sources already exist to offer insight and information about Miles Davis (for one of the most thought-provoking, see Don Cheadle's movie Miles Ahead). But if Stanley Nelson's Birth of the Cool reaffirms anything, it is that while the scope and influence of this iconic musician's work is sufficiently vast no single perspective can encapsulate its expanse, each successive exploration, like listening to his records, reveals something new.

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