A celebration of the music, there’s surprisingly little exploration in the personal biographical life of Miles Davis – with the exception of Davis’ heroin addiction early in his career and the cocktail of prescription and recreational drugs he became addicted to in the 1980s.
Once recognised that Stanley Nelson’s documentary is not Miles Davis, the man but a formulaic celebration of a five-decade career, it’s time to take it or leave it. The film does include interviews with two ex-wives and two children, and they provide an element of the more personal narrative. But his known misogyny and violence to women is barely mentioned – an omission that rankles considering Nelson talks of his position among the black community: elegant, stylish, wealthy and an uncompromising black American.
Photographs and archival footage provide an extensive opportunity to celebrate the music. But Nelson cannot leave the power of the material to speak for itself: voice-overs (words – Davis himself, voice – a rasping Carl Lumbly) interject throughout, resulting in mere snippets of excerpts from classic albums such as Birth of the Cool, Sketches of Spain, Bitches Brew. Talking heads of jazz greats and music historians add kudos. But too often, the spoken word drowns out much of the music.
A chronological presentation helps put Davis’s music into a context, but the limited purview of Nelson’s approach sees that context develop in something of a vacuum.