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Thread: SFFILM: San Francisco Film Festival 2019

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  1. #16
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    NILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL (Stanley Nelson 2018)



    Sketches of Miles

    Miles Davis deserves many documentaries. Here is one. That's something. See also Don Cheadle's 2015 feature film recreation Miles Ahead, not a great film maybe, but in the right obnoxious spirit. This one starts off on the wrong foot for me by using a narration of "quotes" from Miles spoken in a fake Miles-gravelly voice by somebody else, leaving one with the distinct initial impression that if the man may have written these words of pedestrian autobiography, he'd never have spoken them. His spoken words had an element of surprise lacking here. Anyway, this is fakery, "simulation."

    Nonetheless, when this PBS "Masters" film merely delivers snaps of Miles or clips of the life and the art, they can't be ruined. Simply watch the opening few seconds of a rush of stills of the changing face and variegated styles of the jazz master with "Kind of Blue" playing in the foreground, black and white and sizzling cool, and you're awed. So never mind: this material is golden.

    What I didn't know: Miles seems to slide from The Juilliard School into playing with the top jazz artists of Fifth-Second Street without any real stepping stones. Collaborations with Gil Evans begin. He goes to post-liberation Paris in 1949, meets Juliette Greco, and falls madly in love, meeting people like Jean-Paul Sartre through her. Sartre says, "Why don't you marry Juliette Greco?" and Miles replies, "Because I love her." The love lasted a lifetime but failed in the racist USA.

    When he returns to New York from the look at another life in Paris, he's so depressed coming "back to the bullshit white people put a black person through in this country" he got addicted to heroin. It's in 1955, age 29, that by failing to stay silent for two weeks after an operation on a polyp on his larynx he got the permanent hoarse gravelly voice everybody identifies with him. His affair with Frances Taylor.

    Recounting these things, interesting to know, doesn't convey the electric excitement for a fan of jazz of our glimpses here, stolen moments, if you will, of the great years of Bebop and beyond when "America's classical music" was in flower and Miles Davis was at the heart of it. Listen to how Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, interviewed, describe Miles's sound.

    There is a nice account by the pianist (René Urtreger) of the making of Miles' memorable 1957 soundtrack for Louis Malle's Ascenceur pour l'échafaud ("Elevator to the Scaffold"), one of the unique creative jazz sound scores, like the MJQ's stunning score for Roger Vadim's No Sun in Venice from earlier in the same year. The story of the making of the all-time most famous and biggest selling jazz album, the 1959 Kind of Blue. His style: "being cool, and hip, and angry, and sophisticated, and ultra-clean. . . I was all those things." Then, late Sixties, to overcome the dominance of rock, crossover, percussion, new clothes, Bitches Brew "cosmic jungle music." Picasso Miles's continual self-reinvention from then on.

    Interlude: 1975-1980 Miles' dark years (referenced in Cheadle's movie) when he did nothing but do drugs and didn't pick up his horn. Rescued by Cicely Tyson. His extraordinary funk rebirth and new personality and constant touring, never looking back, playing only new music, reinvented again, new hip wild look. Then at 65, in 1991, sudden rapid decline.

    Miles was a leader in at least five major phases of jazz style, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, and jazz fusion and three labels, Prestige, Columbia, and Warner Brothers. This film can't begin to cover the many musicians he introduced to the public through new bands. You need a miniseries. There are some good talking heads including Greg Tate, Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, George Wein, Frances Taylor, Carlos Santana, Miles 1980's manager Mark Rothbaum, and others, all have interesting things to say. You can never give this subject justice in a couple of hours, but this seems like a fairly good try and the main outlines of the remarkable life and extraordinary art are there.

    Birth of the Cool, 115 mins., debuted at Sundance; also Miami, Cleveland and Montclair, as well as San Francisco, where it was screened for this review.

    SFFILM showtimes:
    Fri, Apr 12 at 5:00 pm BAMPFA
    Sun, Apr 14 at 4:00 pm Victoria Theatre

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-17-2019 at 01:34 AM.


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