The Miles Davis Story DVD Review [Columbia/Legacy]

Film / Video Reviews
The Miles Davis Story DVD Review [Columbia/Legacy]
Nov 26, 2002, 21:08

THE MILES DAVIS STORY directed by Mike Dibb; Columbia/Legacy, 2002

That Miles Davis was a complex cipher, as both an artist and a human being, is a fact that, along with his trademark innate sense of style, often threatens to eclipse the undeniable greatness of his music. That his story, like the man himself, should be so difficult to pin down on film is perhaps unsurprising. But it is also, of course, perfectly fitting.

Originally made in 2001 for British television, this two-hour bio follows Miles from his childhood and musical beginnings in St. Louis; to Julliard and bebop in New York; to tasting freedom from racism in Europe; to Birth Of The Cool and the Gil Evans era; to the classic mid-60s quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; to Bitches Brew and the heady, early days of fusion; to his perhaps desperate, perhaps noble but misguided (will we really ever know?) attempts to remain “relevant” in the 80s, followed by his sudden, shocking demise in 1991. Producer/director Mike Dibb narrates the film in the dry, detached, singularly British manner of Sir Laurence Olivier's voiceovers for The World at War, as it takes in some great performance footage (clips of the freaky, early-70s “electric” bands are especially engrossing—a riveting revelation to anyone who prefers his 50s material). Interviews with biographer Ian Carr, fellow St. Louis trumpeter and first great mentor Clark Terry, jazz guru George Avakian, pianist/vocalist Shirely Horn; Prestige label founder George Weinstock, and ex-band mates like Dave Holland, Jack Dejohnette, John McLaughlin, Dave Liebman, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Kind of Blue drummer Jimmy Cobb all yield anecdotes filled with the kind of puzzling, paradoxical plums that fans have come to take almost as a given. (During many of these talks, Dibbs employs—ad infinitum—a production gimmick that superimposes the interviewee's profile over topic-related stills or footage, a—presumably—budget-defined method reminiscent of early MTV. This technique quickly becomes visually grating, especially in the case of Weinstock, god bless him, whose quadruple chin flaps in the breeze like a deflated bicycle tire.)

Certainly what's most striking about this film is its portrayal of Miles' relationship with his women and children. Maybe it shouldn't come as a shock that someone so painfully cavalier in the public eye would be such a dog, so violent, and so unfeelingly distant to some of his kids. It's nothing less than tragic that the bitterness between him and his two eldest sons remains unresolved to this day, with Miles never contributing a cent to their welfare when he was alive and leaving them nothing from his estate (no wonder they don't appear in the film). And yet this is the same man who took the previously accepted, Armstrong-derived, ebullient definition of jazz trumpet—indeed, jazz itself—and turned it inside out, with the cool, wounded and lyrical vulnerability of his art. This is the same Miles Davis who gave us Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince WillCome, and, yes, Kind of Blue. But he also gave us On the Corner, Bitches Brew, DarkMagus. That one of his former wives, the dancer, model, and journalist Francis Davis, recounts how she ran, in fear for her safety, during one of his coke-induced outbursts, only to be wooed back by one of his performances soon after, illustrates this dichotomy all too well.

The Miles Davis Story is a commendable, though flawed, attempt at chronicling the life, art, and personality of an iconic genius. It's not likely to convert anyone who wonders what made Miles Davis so great, though it may make them curious enough to go and find out. But for his fans, or those who love jazz, it rates at least a rental.

In segments from a 1985 interview, Miles, the glare reflecting hideously off his balding pate from cheap, overly-prying boom lights, raspily croaks out cryptic answers that often trail off before they have a chance to end. At a level slightly elevated from what we already know, Dibb's film offers only teasing glimpses into its subject's persona. Just the way Miles would have wanted it. (DVD edition features a discography, as well as a biography written by Francis Davis.) 

-Peter Aaron

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