Acclaimed Filmmaker Stanley Nelson Talks Getting Into Miles Davis' Head With 'Miles Davis: Birth Of Cool' [Sundance Interview]

February 3rd 2019

If we’re lucky, many of us may have the fortune of doing one extraordinary thing in a lifetime. The late legend Miles Davis had the luck of ten men. The world-renowned trumpet player had an exemplary career that spanned five decades. Though he was temperamental and sometimes vicious, the only time Davis allowed himself to be vulnerable was when he was creating and playing his music. A chameleon who was able to shift and change with the times without ever losing the essence of who he was, Davis lived quite a life. In his brilliant documentary, Miles Davis: Birth of Cool, acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson gives his audience a window into Davis’ life —one that showcases his triumphs and his demons.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is comprised of archival footage, studio outtakes, and rare photos. More than that, the documentary is from Davis’ own perspective, with words from his autobiography, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. Nelson also conducted interviews from those closest to Davis, including his family, friends, and contemporaries. Just after the film’s premiere, Shadow and Act sat down with Nelson to discuss his long journey to complete the film, and the tension that came with tackling such a massive icon.

"We started almost fifteen years ago with American Masters," Nelson remembered. "We got permission from the family, and then from Sony Music. Then somehow, some way, the project kind of fell apart and just got scuttled. Then maybe two years ago it got resurrected, so we've been working on it a solid two years now.”

A still from Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool by Stanley Nelson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Guy Le Querrec. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' A still from Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool by Stanley Nelson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Guy Le Querrec.

One of the most impactful components of the film is that the audience hears Davis’ words just as he said them. Nelson chose to ask actor Carl Lumbly to speak as Miles Davis. "Quincy Troupe — who wrote the autobiography with Miles by sitting down with him and having a series of long conversations gave us access to 55 tapes of him and Miles talking," Nelson explained. "We struggled for a long time trying to use those as the actual track because you can hear Miles' own voice. However, the problem was that it was done on a  tiny, old style cassette tape recorder with no mic. Then Miles is eating during the interviews, and the TV is on in the background and other stuff. Finally, we just had to give up, and then we went to his autobiography. We used those words with Carl Lumbly reading as Miles."

Miles Davis began his career in the 1940s just as bebop was being invented. However, unlike other musicians who struggle even today, to shift and adjust when new forms of music are born, Davis was tireless when it came to reinventing himself. "I think that's who Miles was," Nelson reflected. "Change was in his DNA. I don't think that you could say Miles wanted to change, I think Miles had to change and constantly stay current. When he goes to New York in the beginning and hooks up with Charlie Parker, and he’s playing bebop, that was the music of the time and then he reinvents that with the Birth of Cool, and he just continued to do that. He propelled jazz and music in so many different ways for over fifty years."

A lush and meaty documentary stuffed full of never-before-seen images and footage, Nelson displays a treasure trove of material in Birth of Cool. "We found one of Miles' friends, Corky McCoy," the Emmy-Award winner explained. "Miles encouraged Corky to buy a camera and take candid photos in the fifties. So Corky did that for a while, then he went out on his own and bought a 16mm camera and filmed Miles. The boxing footage that you see of Miles, the Ferrari that you see driving, the end footage of Miles on the terrace and some of the other things in there was stuff that Corky shot and nobody had ever seen."

As remarkable and ingenious as Davis was musically —he could also be cruel. He had a horrible temper and he also physically abused the women in his life, including his second wife, Frances Taylor Davis. Nelson refused to shy away from the monstrous sides of the musician's personality. "That was part of who Miles was," he said earnestly, "I think it's important. It's an important part of his music. Someone said maybe just maybe; it was through his music that he could show a side of himself that he couldn't show in the real world. It was difficult in Jim Crow America for a Black man to show a kind of tenderness that Miles showed in his music. He didn't see it in his house. His father and mother had a very abusive relationship, and he didn't see it out in the jazz world, by and large. It's imperative for us to talk about it. I think that the balancing act, the high-wire act that we had to perform was not letting that consume the film."

Nelson also realized how important it was to have Davis’ family on board with the film. However, he didn’t let the expectations of the musician’s loved ones narrow his vision for Birth of Cool. "They approved of the film, they approved me as director and then we were not really in contact," he said. “We were only in contact if we needed a picture, or if we needed more information. We didn't show them anything in the film until a week ago. They called me in the middle of the night to tell me how much they loved the film, and that was really important. I think you always hope that the subjects of your film like what you've done, and I was very gratified when they did. However, they did not get input on the content in any way. As a matter of fact, there are people in the film who they disagree with and don’t like."

A still from Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool by Stanley Nelson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Guy Le Querrec. A still from Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool by Stanley Nelson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Guy Le Querrec.

Nelson’s thirty-year career has chronicled so much of the Black American experience from Freedom Summer to the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Still, when it came to illustrating Miles Davis’ massive legacy on screen, the MacArthur fellow did feel a bit of apprehension. "I wouldn't say I was overwhelmed, but I would say that there's tension there," he revealed. "We wanted to get the story right. This is a very important story, and also, it's a privilege. How many filmmakers get a chance to make a film about somebody who is an icon and whose music they really admire? Just as an artist, you have to admire Miles. The fact that he was at the forefront of music, the forefront of change for fifty years —there's nothing like that. There are very few artists in the history of the world that you could say that about. There was a burden there, but it's a burden that I was glad to take on."

With a completed and epic Miles Davis biopic under his belt, Nelson has already shifted his focus toward other untold Black stories. "We have a film called, Boss: The Black Experience in Business," he revealed. "We actually finished it on the exact same day as we finished the Miles Davis movie and that film will be on PBS April 23rd. We’re also starting this massive four hour series on the Atlantic Slave Trade, the business of the slave trade and how that influenced and changed the world. I'm hoping that will be one of the most important series that's ever been on TV. We're helping to reframe the whole importance of the Atlantic Slave Trade in world history. We just started that. We've got a couple of other projects that we're working on, and the Firelight’s Documentary Lab that we run is kicking. We've got two films in Sundance that came through the lab. Always in Season which is about lynching, and Words From a Bear about the writer, N. Scott Momaday."

Miles Davis: Birth of Cool premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019.

Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide