Woody Allen (ironically enough, and I’m paraphrasing here), once said that talent is luck, which is why so many artists can act like shitheels. He explored that phenomenon in his 1999 film, Sweet and Lowdown, which starred (speaking of irony), Sean Penn (a few years before his second career as a nuclear weapons inspector) as an out-of-control, childlike, but undeniably talented jazz guitarist.
The Miles Davis Story, recently released on DVD by Sony, explores a similar trait within its eponymous subject. As an artist, Miles Davis was arguably the most important musician in jazz. As I’ve written previously in Blogcritics:
Very, very few artists can be said to have changed the course of their medium even once. Miles Davis changed the direction of jazz three times.
First with 1949′s The Birth of the Cool, Davis, early in his career as a bandleader, slowed the frantic tempo of bebop down, and introduced the world to cool jazz. This would be the dominant form of jazz, especially as played by west coast musicians, for the next decade.
In 1969, Davis released Bitches Brew, a double album of what would eventually be described as jazz-rock fusion. Fusion of course, would be the dominant form of jazz (for better or worse) for the next decade, and the players on Bitches Brew (which include John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea) would be its chief proponents.
In between those two extremes, in 1959, Davis introduced modal jazz to the world [with his album, Kind of Blue, (the making of which would make for an excellent documentary itself).]
You know you’re about to see a true “warts and all” documentary when it begins with an extremely dissonant note; in this case, a shot of Miles, from the mid-1980s audibly burping after swallowing a large gulp of Evian before saying “I’m ready. What do you want to know?” Miles’ physical appearance doesn’t help matters. In the mid-1980s, he looked awful–balding, emaciated, and in ill health, unlike the late 1950s and 1960s, when he looked like a handsome young black god, with impeccable taste in music, women, art, clothes, and cars.
Miles Davis and bassist Michael Henderson,
Dark Side of a Musical God
But Miles’ sleek appearance and cool music hid a bitter, angry man, capable of misogyny, pettiness, misanthropy, and other dark emotions. There are external reasons that help explain some of his bitterness, such as the racism he grew up with in Missouri (and even after he was a superstar, he would be harassed by New York City policemen in several ugly incidents), and the heavy personal price he must have paid to obtain his astounding musical talent, but Miles’ dark side went beyond this to extract pounds of flesh from everyone living around him.
And the documentary doesn’t skimp on showing the seamy side of Miles. He certainly treated his women very nicely: his first wife, Irene, (whom he routinely cheated on with a mistress in Paris) had to send him to jail in order to get him to pay support for their three children. His second wife Frances, Miles ordered to give up a promising career as a Broadway dancer to devote more time to her husband (in the documentary, Frances Davis says that Miles loved boxing, and had a punching bag in the basement of their home. “Which was good for me”, she says, “because I learned how to duck!”). And in another incident related to women, the DVD shows drummer Jack DeJohnette and his wife Lydia, who tell how Miles almost sacked the drummer from playing on the critical tour that supported Bitches Brew, Miles’ best selling album, because DeJohnette wanted to take his pregnant wife on the tour. On that same tour, in Los Angeles, Davis objected to where Lydia was sitting backstage, and refused to play unless she moved. (She says Davis did call her to apologize the next day, however.)
Watching all of this, part of me was torn–obviously, fans of an artist are curious about what makes him tick, and celebrity scandals are what keeps cable TV channels such as E! and VH-1 (with its Behind the Music documentaries) in business. But I would have preferred a documentary with (a) more music and (b) more talk about how the music gets created.
And there is certainly no shortage of live Miles in the can to choose from–the film has numerous short, but utterly hypnotic snippets of videotaped television concerts and live performances, but curiously, fails to even mention Miles’ great “final” concert at Montreux in 1990, when he played (for the first time in at least 22 years-if not more) some of the music he created with Gil Evans. Backing him was an all-star cast of musicians, assembled by Quincy Jones. This concert was videotaped and frequently shown on PBS during fund-raising weeks, often with an earlier 1986 documentary about Miles, which is where several of the interviews for this documentary were lifted.
With the exception of some of the historical black and white filmed and videotaped footage, this is an extremely handsome, well-lit and videotaped documentary, shot in HDTV and mastered for DVD in 16X9 anamorphic widescreen (with plenty of chapter stops to make it easy to maneuver around the disc). And there’s a wealth of new interviews shot especially for the documentary, as well as still photographs and archival footage (including a few brief clips from the rarely seen Jack Johnson, a documentary about a legendary black boxer whom Miles closely identified with. His roaring soundtrack for the movie was one of the highlights of his jazz-rock fusion period). For someone new to the legend of Miles, it’s a certainly a very good place to begin to learn about him.
Anything Else You Want To Know?
It’s the balance of the material that’s problematic.
After the credits, there’s another brief tag, taken from the same mid-1980s interview that launched the documentary, where Miles says, “Anything else you want to know? You better hurry up man, before I get tired!”
Actually, there’s a lot about Miles to be learned; like any television documentary, The Miles Davis Story only begins to tell his story, of course. And it’s hard not to think of Miles’ timing when listening to that line, as discordant as the one that opened the documentary. As a musician, Miles’ timing was impeccable; both in his trumpet playing, and his regular ability to seemingly invent new genres of music from thin air. Too bad the same can’t be said of the time this documentary spent analyzing the man, which could have been better balanced between his music and his muse. Still, it’s very much worth checking out, by both diehard fans, and newcomers who want to learn more about one of jazz’s most influential (and complex) figures. And hopefully it will inspire additional DVDs of Miles Davis to be released as well.