Sunday, November 17, 2019
Story by Gregory Allen Howard
Screenplay Written by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
*** (three stars)
RATED PG 13
Special thanks to my Mom, Mrs. Aretha Collins, for saying the very words that have become the title of this review
I am reminded of a time during childhood when I would watch Chicago's channel 44, anxiously awaiting the (barely) animated but entirely enveloping adventures of the Marvel Comics superheroes, an d enduring the downright endless installments of "The 700 Club," when on occasion I would be intrigued by commercials advertising Bible stories reformatted into comic books.
While I was not necessarily interested in reading Bible stories, comic books were comic books and perhaps, the stories that completely eluded me during church would somehow become more tangible if presented within a context that I did understand. Needless to say, my Mother refused to indulge this interest, feeling that the comic book treatment would only trivialize, and therefore, undermine what she believes to be the Word Of God.
And so it is very interesting that this memory arrived to me as I watched Director Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet," her biopic of the slave turned abolitionist freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. While an undeniably effective film, it is also an oddly shallow one as well, especially considering the subject matter, from the titular figure to the time period and American history through which she existed and ultimately shaped.
One would think (or at least I did) that any film about Harriet Tubman would be the sort of Oscar worthy (or more cynical viewers might brand as "Oscar bait") experience that would play as more lavish, stately, and epic...essentially the type of film that a historical figure and hero like Harriet Tubman would deserve. Yet, what Lemmons delivered is a film experience that oddly enough speaks more to the dominant cinematic language and landscape of the day: the superhero movie, and I have to admit, this approach simultaneously confused me while it also intrigued.
Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet" stars Cynthia Erivo as our legendary heroine, but beginning her story in 1848 Buckton, Maryland while as a slave named Minty. As the film opens, Minty, alongside her emancipated husband John Tubman (Zakary Momoh) approach slave/plantation master Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde) to request permission to begin a family and that any children would be born free. Not only is that request vehemently denied, plans have been made to sell Minty to another plantation owner thus separating her from her husband plus her brothers Henry and Robert (played by Antonio J. Bell and Joseph Lee Anderson, respectively), her sister Rachel (Deborah Ayorinde) and parents Rit and Ben Ross (played by Vanessa Bell Calloway and Clarke Peters).
Fueled by an unshakable resolve and refusal to be ripped away from her family and further enslaved and armed with an equally unshakable spiritual faith with God, which is revealed to her through hallucinations/premonitions brought on by her frequent fainting spells (created by a brutal head injury inflicted upon her as a child by a slave owner), Minty makes her escape from the plantation deep into the night.
Although she is relentlessly pursued and nearly captured by Edward Burgess' son, slave master Gideon Burgess (Joe Alwyn), Minty valiantly leaps into the rivers as a last ditch effort and soon finds herself, after washing ashore and then making a 100 ft journey, in Philadelphia, where she meets abolitionists William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), the wealthy Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), the organizers and "conductors" of the Underground Railroad Network and fin ally re-christens herself as a self-emancipated woman with the name Harriet Tubman.
Invigorated by her newfound freedom and emboldened by her refusal to be enslaved again combined with her determination to free her family, Harriet Tubman doggedly returns to Maryland over and over again to rescue and further emancipate the slaves, thus crippling the slave owners' businesses and further enraging Gideon, whose clutches she continuously evades, thus earning her the nickname of "Moses The Slave Stealer."
Stakes are raised further with the U.S. Congress' passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which forces the Underground Railroad's re-location into Canada, making Harriet Tubman's rescue missions that much more perilous, and now with the deadly (and traitorous Black man) bounty hunter Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey) in cahoots with Gideon, feverishly on her trail. Yet, with each success, Harriet Tubman grows more intrepid, more fearless, bolder, braver and wholly uncompromising in her determination to live free or die.
Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet" is undeniably a gloriously presented production augmented by the always luscious visual palate from veteran Cinematographer John Toll as well as a rich, lustrous score from Composer Terence Blanchard. All of the film's performances are first rate and indeed beautifully anchored by Cynthia Erivo's measured, mournful fury. It is unquestionably an effective film, one that contains a certain power but for some reason throughout, I felt that there was something about the proceedings that felt to be a tad...off.
Again, perhaps as I thought about the possibilities of what a biopic film centered around Harriet Tubman could be, I was imagining something that did possess a certain emotional complexity that Lemmons film actually did not contain. There was something that felt to be more than a little simple or basic or so direct in its straightforwardness, that there was not any room for anything to delve underneath the surface of the plot...and for that matter, the film didn't seem to be remotely interested in delving into any deep waters whatsoever. And for whatever reasons, this was the point when it hit me that what I was watching felt to be more akin to an action film or more truthfully, a comic book origin story film, the type of film we have all become exceedingly educated with over these last ten years with the Marvel Comics films in particular.
Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet" is essentially the origin story of Harriet Tubman and is indeed structured as such. We see her beginnings, or at least the point at which she is beginning to make her crucial transformation into something larger than she may have ever imagined of herself.
We witness the moment of pivotal change from Minty into Harriet Tubman and how she eventually earns the descriptive moniker of "Moses The Slave Stealer" like Superman is known as the "Man Of Steel" or Batman as "The Dark Knight." Her fainting spell induced visions/premonitions from God are essentially her equivalent to Peter Parker's tingling "Spidey sense" alerting him to on-coming dangers. The members of the Underground Railroad secret society,a group which includes Frederick Douglass could be seen as a version of The Avengers of the Justice League. Watch how her wardrobe changes throughout the film from her slave clothing to the Harriet Tubman "costume" that features the smart fedora, long coat, smart satchel and accompanying loaded pistols. It is all there, turning the true, larger than life story of Harriet Tubman into "Harriet" our latest superhero film yet this time about a real life superhero that assisted greatly in saving the African -American race from the annihilation of slavery.
Admittedly, as engaged as I was, I really was unsure as to how much I actually liked this kind of a portrayal because just as my Mom was not willing to allow me to experience stories from the Bible as comic books, I seriously questioned if the story of Harriet Tubman could, would or should be possibly, or inadvertently, trivialized from this well-intentioned but potentially slight execution,. As I watched, the film made me feel that Lemmons was trying to create some sort of hybrid of Director John Singleton's "Rosewood" (1997), Director Steve McQueen's outstanding, artfully stark "12 Years A Slave" (2013), and the brutally pulpy, morally righteous rage of Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (2012), where her interpretation of Harriet Tubman was some kind of Civil War version of Shaft or Foxy Brown, cinematic icons of the 1970's Blaxploitation era.
And yet, as I questioned, I did remember an interview with Tarantino around the time of the release of "Django Unchained" when he remarked that he felt that sometimes the tone of the exploitation film is better suited and therefore woud reach a greater sense of truth about difficult subject matter than the classy, Hollywood epic because the exploitation film would indeed get down and dirty where the Oscar hopeful would more than likely be more tentative in getting its cinematic hands considerably messy.
I have to say there is some truth to that assessment because I would not be surprised if Kasi Lemmons originally questioned as to how to make the story of Harriet Tubman resonate powerfully in the 21st century and not make her film feel like a dusty History lesson during a time when it feels that knowing one's history is not en vogue. Perhaps what I was watching within "Harriet" was a directorial choice, something 100% intentional...
There is no question as to Kasi Lemmons' filmmaking skill, talent and audacity, especially as evidenced in her previous films, which include her excellent debut feature "Eve's Bayou" (1997) and the sensational "Talk To Me" (2007). She more than understands the language of cinema, how it works and operates and perhaps, seeing the tenor of the current cinematic times, she made a purposeful decision to meet the audience where it exists and deliver her experience in the dominant cinematic language we understand.
"Harriet" is a visceral experience, a slave epic that works as a chase film that often recalls Director Andrew Davis' "The Fugitive" (1993), as well as a film of female empowerment in the #MeToo era (the film could also work as a companion piece to television's "The Handmaid's Tale"), and a ferocious war cry in the Black Lives Matter era, therefore making the film deceptively simplistic.
I am reminded of Producer George Lucas and Director Anthony Hemingway's underseen "Red Tails" (2012), their film about the all African-American Tuskegee Airmen, where the film's tone harkened back to the corny, stilted style of 1940's war films but this time, we were graced with the undeniably magnetic images of young, attractive Black men in positions of power, valiantly driving the engine of the film and being the stars of the type of gorgeously realized aerial dogfights this side of Lucas' own "Star Wars" series. It was the approach that set the stage to first entertain and then, hopefully inspire audiences to discover more and delve deeper once we exited the theaters.
With Lemmons' "Harriet," I am feeling that maybe this was her intent. To first entertain, and to then inspire. And I have to say, that is precisely what I did after leaving the film, which I did happen to screen with my Mom...and what we discovered afterwards was stupendously fascinating and enlightening.
On our way home from the film, my Mom mentioned that she had been unfamiliar with the name of William Still and that perhaps we should look him up. As depicted in the film, Still was a free Black man who, in Philadelphia, chronicled the names, dates and experiences of every escaped and emancipated slave who arrived, all culminated and compiled in The Underground Railroad Records (published 1872), and which incidentally can be easily found on-line and I will happily post a link at the conclusion of this review for you.
To read the real words in a journal that inexplicably still exists in 2019 is stunning and profoundly humbling, and in some ways, lends itself to Kasi Lemmons (or any other willing filmmaker) to bring the story of William Still and the creation and survival of his journals to the big screen...and coming to this realization, I could see more greatly just how potent Lemmons' "Harriet" actually is. It INSPIRED me and my Mom to seek, to learn more and to even view our existence through an even wider lens than before. If that was Kasi Lemmons intent, then mission accomplished and then some,
Even so, "Harriet" is not a flawless experience as there are scenes that ring as inauthentic, some characters that are not terribly well drawn and I do greatly question why the film's most graphically violent moment occurs between a Black man and a Black woman.
Yet, I did appreciate how Lemmons' did showcase the business of slavery and therefore, the unforgivable inhumanity of that business that treated human beings as less than furniture. I appreciated how Lemmons did present the horrors of White supremacy in language that clearly mirrors words spoken today as well as the relentless psychological damage of slavery which created a sense of distrust within African-Americans towards each other, a distrust that also exists to this very day.
And returning to William Still's The Underground Railroad Records, I present to you some of his own written impressions about the real Harriet Tubman:
"Harriet was a woman of no pretensions, indeed, a more ordinary specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking farm hands of the South. Yet, in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions rescue her fellow-men, by making personal visits to Maryland among the slaves, she was without her equal.
Her success was wonderful...Great fears were entertained for her safety, but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or slave-holders seemed never to enter her mind. She was apparently proof against all adversaries. While she thus manifested such utter personal indifference, she was much more watchful with regard to those she was piloting...
...Of course Harriet was supreme, and her followers generally had full faith in her, and woud back up any word she might utter...It is obvious enough, however, that her success in going into Maryland as she did, was attributable to her adventurous spirit and utter disregard of consequences. Her like it is probable was never known before or since."
If Kasi Lemmons captured anything at all, she indeed captured that essence and impression in full, the essence and impression of a woman who eventually emerged and lived her life as a real world superhero. And in doing so, maybe this was the correct artistic approach to "Harriet" after all.
Here is the link to The Underground Railroad Records...
Friday, November 8, 2019
Story by Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay Written by Bong Joon-ho & Han Jin-wan
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
**** (four stars)
This is the magic of going to the movies!! The magic of entering a storytelling universe and allowing yourself to be taken in by its cinematic spell in a darkened roomful of strangers all having the exact same experience. When that very storytelling universe happens to be one that is foreign to the viewer, then all going well and if the film is executed at its most successful levels, then, the magic of going to the movies is felt tenfold.
For me, in all of my years of going to the movies, I have not ever seen any films from Director Bong Joon-ho. While I have been loosely familiar with his name and a couple of his films, including "The Host" (2006) and "Snowpiercer" (2013), I just have not taken the plunge into his cinematic world...and for no apparent reason whatsoever. With the arrival of his latest film, "Parasite," I would like to think that my whole ignorance of Bong Joon-ho certainly played into my response to the film as I honestly had not one pre-conceived notion of what I would experience, making his cinematic voice one that was completely unknown to me.
But that is not to take anything away from what "Parasite" is in its entirety, whether I had previously known of Bong Joon-ho, or not and that is to say that his new film is ingenious, it is jaw dropping, it is a Pandora's Box of malevolent surprises and it is unquestionably a revelation in our movie landscape which is indeed favoring those lavishly produced yet assembly line theme parks that audiences are growing dangerously accustomed to. Honestly, when was the last time you went to a film not having an idea of what to expect and just ended being blown away by the results? Trust me, dear readers, when I emphatically urge you to take a chance on Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite," a film so audacious in it brilliance that it is easily one of 2019's tallest achievements.
In order to ensure that there are no spoilers, I will only provide the following description detailing the plot of "Parasite." As the film opens, we meet the Kim family, which includes family patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), all of whom are unemployed and live together in a dilapidated semi-basement apartment.
When Ki-woo's college bound friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), suggests to Ki-woo that he pose as a college student and become an English tutor for the teenage daughter in the wealthy Park family, which includes Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeung, respectively), their young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon) plus the aforementioned Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), Ki-woo's decision begins to intertwine the two families.
And yes indeed, that is all I am going to divulge to you. But, I will extol to following...
While the title may suggest something either grotesquely violent or something possibly regarding the supernatural, I will assure you that this film does not fit either description. That said, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" is masterful in its direction, meticulous in its writing, acting, and visual aesthetics most notably, its set design and finally, it is brilliantly multi-layered in its characters and overall thematic elements. Because of these qualities and attributes, it is of no surprise to me that the film was awarded the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Working in superbly crisp and razor sharp collaboration with Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, Editor Yang Jin-mo, and Composer Jeong-Jae-il, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" sprints across and weaves together the elements of the social satire and the pulse pounding thriller in a fashion that feels as if it is indeed the first time you have ever experienced anything quite like this film while also existing as something familiar enough to evoke nothing less than the finest of Hitchcock, The Coen Brothers, some Quentin Tarantino and even Woody Allen's "Match Point" (2005).
As the subtleties and overtures, plus micro-aggressions, stereotypes, prejudices, fears and dark wish fulfillments that exist within class warfare are all on display and crucial to the entire experience with "Parasite," we have a film that does indeed extended beyond film genre hopping/blending and exists as a passionate and uncompromising morality tale in which Bong Joon-ho never utilizes his film as a platform to sermonize but as a means to explore our collective humanity if presented with a set of seemingly impossible choices.
In doing so, Bong allows us to be tickled and terrified by what unfolds throughout the film so seamlessly as it is somehow so inexplicably identifiable and recognizable enough to picture ourselves within the film's scenarios, thus making for a film experience that is simultaneously claustrophobic and cavernous, intimate and universal, foreign and familiar, hilarious and horrifying.
Again, dear readers, and especially for those of you who are typically adverse to viewing anything with subtitles, which "Parasite" indeed is filled with from end-to-end, this is why we go to the movies!!!! This is what the movies are for!!
If you please allow me to stand upon my Savage Soapbox for a moment and address once again the controversy surrounding the comments made by Martin Scorsese against the Marvel Comics movies and their ilk, which is precisely the same gripes and grievances I have made against the entire sequel, prequel, remake, reboot, re-imagining culture that is now the engine driving the movie industry regarding which films are made to how they are all released.
As I have always presented to you throughout the history of Savage Cinema, I love films that are created and designed to exist as escapist and many of those types of movies are indeed some of my most favorite movies. Some of those movies are the very ones that made me fall in love with the movies as an art form.
I saw and loved Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" just like all of you. I am practically salivating with anticipation for J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode IX-The Rise Of Skywalker." But, that being said, I don't wish to see those kinds of movies every week. And I passionately believe that as movie goers, we should not want to have those types of movies as our steady, constant cinematic diet every week.
What I hate is how the prevalence of those types films have powerfully altered the movie going landscape and this is what Scorsese is rallying against, the theme park reconstruction of what we, the general public, are being given to see in our movie theaters via the illusion of choice. Certainly, naysayers would argue that the sheer spectacle of those escapist movies are tailor made for our movie screens. True. But honestly, how large does Batman's cowl have to be?
I believe that our movies screens are as tailor made for rich, multi-layered cinematic storytelling of all styles and genres as much as it is for the awesome sight of the destruction of the Death Star. And to find yourself lost in the superior cinematic storytelling told by an unfamiliar creative voice delivering a wholly unfamiliar perspective, it is as if you are seeing the movies anew all over again.
This is why the arrival of Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" is so crucial as this film is cinematic storytelling at its most artful, entertaining and ferociously original. If I wished, I would describe this movie further for you. Yet, I wish for you to receive it just as I did, with little to no information. That way, perhaps you can take a chance and find yourselves in that dark movie theater prepared to enter into a cinematic vision that will feel like falling into a new world, emerging afterwards with your perceptions possibly altered. What a shame it would be to miss a film of this high level for no other reason than it was foreign, subtitled and otherwise unfamiliar.
Again, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" is one of the very best films of 2019.
Saturday, November 2, 2019
Produced and Directed by Stanley Nelson
**** (four stars)
For my Dad, Mr. Powhatan Collins, who would have absolutely loved this film...
Three years ago, I found myself enthralled by Co-Writer/Actor/Director Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead" (2016), his defiant, unrepentant exploration of the iconic musician Miles Davis (ruthlessly portrayed by Cheadle). Like Davis himself as he ventured through his artistic odyssey and music career by breaking through every conceivable barrier in what could or could not be presented as jazz, Cheadle's film unapologetically refused to follow the cinematic rule book regarding anything resembling a biopic, which, it should be noted, "Miles Ahead" emphatically was not.
What I loved, in addition to Cheadle's searing performance, was the film's sheer audacity within its primary conceit. To create an impressionistic portrait of the artist when he is not creating, illustrating his inner world via a non-linear structure of memories, dreams, and surreal touches resulting in an experience that was not only electrifying but one that felt as if it could have been the very film Miles Davis could have made about himself.
And my Dad hated it.
Yes indeed, Miles Davis has existed within the spectrum of my life for the entirety of my life and not because I have been a fan myself, which I actually had not been. Miles Davis has existed as a towering artistic figure within my household because he existed as my Dad's #1 favorite artist of all time, the one figure above all who would inspire my Dad to seek and follow from one giant artistic shift to another, as his idiosyncratic qualities were second to none and there would never be another like him again.
For my Dad, "Miles Ahead" did not do the legend the proper justice he felt that Miles Davis deserved. While my Dad did indeed love the language and artistry of the movies, he grew irritated when films became overly esoteric and did not just get to the point. It was not that he did not appreciate nuance. But if the work, to him, felt to be designed to make you, the viewer, work just for the sake of working and not because you found yourself lost in the story, he became distrustful and frustrated. And furthermore, with "Miles Ahead," he simply did not wish to see his lifelong hero presented in the way Cheadle envisioned him. My Dad wanted something more straightforward certainly but something more all encompassing and worthy of the life story being told.
Stanley Nelson's superlative documentary, "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool," is not only precisely the film I am certain that my Dad had always wanted to witness about his hero, it is an excellent film for absolutely anyone and everyone who wishes to gaze into the mind and musical world of one of our most feverishly adventurous artists of any conceivable genre. Much like Miles Davis himself, Nelson creates a portrait and overall film experience that is cool, sophisticated, angry, and clean and as with the finest documentaries I have seen in recent years, it is also a film that transcends its subject matter to bring into focus larger themes, all of which enhance and enlighten the man and his artistic legacy, while also expanding into our shared existence. Raw and remarkable, Stanley Nelson's film serves as a masterful tribute to one of our most formidable artistic masters.
Stanley Nelson's "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool" takes its full linear cradle-to-grave narrative and structure and utilizes the life story of Miles Davis as both a primer to the artist as well as a rich enhancement to all we may already know about the mercurial, fearless, always forward thinking artist.
Through an enormous arsenal of photographs and visual footage, some of which has never been previously released, plus interviews with Davis' musical collaborators (including bassist Ron Carter, pianist/keyboardist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller among others), writers, journalists, scholars, friends and family members, the film is anchored by Miles Davis's own words and voice as narrator--that is the voice of actor Carl Lumbly evoking Davis' signature throaty rasp. And of course, from end to end, we have Miles Davis' musical legacy as the untouchable soundtrack, a collection of music that remains so profound in its depth that it still continues to reveal itself to our ears.
For Miles Davis devotees and novices, Stanley Nelson's film is meticulously and lovingly researched and therefore, beautifully contextualized into a rich, luxuriously executed narrative that is briskly paced and yet never rushed and by its conclusion, feels wholly complete. I truly found it to being remarkable that Nelson was able to condense so much material into a just under two hour running time, when he clearly had several mountains of material to work with regarding Miles Davis' life.
As I regard Davis now, realizing that he passed away at a very young 65 in 1991, it feels that the man experienced and lived several lives within the one he possessed, and in turn, it feels as if Nelson could have made three two hour documentary films about Davis' odyssey. That comment is not to suggest that I felt anything to be lacking. On the contrary, I feel it demands tremendous praise for Stanley Nelson as he was diligent and focused enough in being able to sift through all of the material and determine precisely what needed to be included to create a multi-layered experience, one, I would gather, would hopefully mirror any Miles Davis album, where we continuously discover and re-discover its gifts.
As previously stated, "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool" is one more documentary that extends itself far beyond the reaches of what could have served as simply a "music biopic." Through witnessing Miles Davis' upbringing in the exceedingly rare confines of an affluent African-American family in Illinois and East St. Louis in the late 1920's and 1930's, his eventual musical studies at Julliard, the intense diligence and cultivation of his prodigious talents in New York City directly alongside the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and eventually his peerless, restless creativity and innovation that would cement him as one of the 20th century's greatest artistic minds and talents, we are also learning of the African-American experience as it relates to race and class and the similarities and differences as experienced by Davis in America and Europe, plus even larger themes of child abuse, depression, addiction, toxic masculinity, female subjugation and empowerment and finally, Black masculinity and Black excellence as it relates to artistic expression.
And then, we are able to regard how all of those themes are weaved into the full discography and legacy of Miles Davis' musical existence, which for him, clearly was another language, in fact, the most effective language for him in which to communicate to the world around him. I loved the story of how, as a child, he was already being perceived as being "weird" as he would wander in the fields by his home imitating the sounds of the natural world with his trumpet, thus the period in which he was beginning to develop his chosen language of music, leading the the dichotomy of his artistic life when compared with his personal life.
It is of no secret that Miles Davis was, in many ways, a hard man. A difficult individual, a figure one interview subject in the film refers to him as being "anti-social." Nelson thankfully does not shy away from these periods of Davis' life therefore ensuring the establishment of a full three dimensional portrait. Regarding race and racism, we are able to clearly see how being a Black man in Paris, in an environment that saw him standing on equal footing with Jean-Paul Sartre, and then returning to America, where this exact same Black man who could be beaten by police directly outside of the nightclub at which he is the headlining act (with his name on the marquee to boot) led to extreme confusion, depression, righteous and rightful rage as well as an eventual addiction to heroin as the constant realization that his wealth and fame could not protect him from a racist American society ate away at him.
Miles Davis' relationships with women will certainly provide the greatest sense of conflict, especially when viewed through a 21st century/Me Too context. I do think that Nelson is not asking of us to condone but to understand, as we also view Davis's adult relationships through his lens of witnessing the abusive relationship of his own parents. While a romance with French singer/actress Juliette Greco (interviewed in the film) fully disarmed him, it was his subsequent relationships that provided him with tremendous sources of inspiration and turbulence, and Nelson, wisely allows ample screen time to the women with whom Miles Davis shared his life in love and torment.
Most famously is Frances Taylor (also interviewed extensively in the film), Davis' first wife, and with whom would create an sparkling, powerful image of Black excellence, high class and sophistication throughout the African-American community. Through Taylor, we receive a full and fair reminiscence of the rise and fall of their love story, through his mental and physical abuse of her--so impactful that it led to her giving up her career as a dancer--and thus, a reclaiming of herself through her endurance, survival and re-emergence, leaving Miles Davis behind entirely.
Nelson's film also touches upon Miles Davis' turbulent romances with both Cicely Tyson and Betty Wright, which also followed suit in similar fashions as each woman served as artistic muse and combustible force. Yet, what Nelson achieves greatly, especially in our unforgiving social media climate regarding any issues of justice and fairness, is to display crucial nuance into each story. We are able to criticize behavior but Nelson never acts as judge and jury. and nor does he wish us to either. He allows us to understand the experiences as a whole, to understand each relationship's level of power struggles, dynamics as well as virtues of inspiration towards each other and the Black community as a whole, for example, the images of Miles Davis and Frances Taylor in the fullest of their respective glories was the epitome of cool, style and elegance, for the Black community and beyond.
For as much as Davis abused Frances Taylor, he also lavished upon her, most notably, placing her upon the cover of his album "Someday My Prince Will Come" (released December 11, 1961), an image that Taylor herself manipulated for even greater mystique as well as reclamation of the beauty image for Black women and society. For as turbulent as Davis and Betty Wright were together, she inspired his musical transformations in the 1970's as equally as the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown.
And in the end, and above all else, "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool" is a celebration of the pioneering artistry that has continued to go unmatched as Davis transcended the jazz genre in enormity, thus inventing his own musical language with which to break boundaries and ultimately, to communicate.
Nelson gives us the ways in which Miles Davis utilized the teaching at Julliard and the New York City nightclubs as his educational grounds that formulated the foundation in which he could aspire to be an artist on the level of Stravinsky. Placing the bell of his trumpet directly into the microphone changed the way in which we heard the instrument and the man who held it. Nelson dives into the creation of Davis' landmark "Kind Of Blue" (released August 17, 1959) as well as the game changing "Bitches Brew" (released April 1970). We witness Davis' reliance on younger musicians to assist him in developing the sounds inside of his spirit and previously unheard in the world and finally, we continue to be awed by his fearless creative restlessness that surged him forwards, always with a refusal to look backwards. We remain amazed!
Even as we watch how he accomplished the seemingly impossible, how he re-invented the wheel over and over again, we are also amazed with how he, his musicality and the trumpet became one entity, communicating in a fashion that is formidable, difficult, demanding and accessible. Again, we understand!!!
It is incredible to watch just how the sensitivity, fury, anxiety, romanticism, and purity of his inner being so difficult to voice in standard interpersonal communication techniques became blindingly visible when he played his trumpet. I especially loved the sequences in which Nelson displays Davis composing and performing the score for the French film "Ascenseur pour L'echafaud" (1958) from Director Louis Malle. It is not what we might already know of traditional film scoring, with a conductor, orchestra and fully composed sheet music at the ready. We see Miles Davis, with trumpet in hand, performing in real time against the film images he is watching, responding intuitively to the characters upon screen, therefore, fusing his musical voice with the existential voice of the character. Absolutely mesmerizing!!
And again, I know my Dad would have loved this film. He would have loved it as much as I did.
Stanley Nelson's "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool" is an enormously entertaining and unquestionably essential document in our continuing exploration into the legacy and mystique of Miles Davis, as well as being a brilliant addition to our finest music based documentaries as it is as informative as it is inclusive to any and all who wish to learn and know more.
It is also one of the very best films I have seen in 2019.
While I have one last review from my film-going in October still being composed, I am hoping that November will give me time and space to catch these new films that have just hit the Madison, WI theaters.
I have to say that I did have a bit of a knee jerk reaction wen I first saw the trailer for this new satire from Writer/Actor/Director Taika Waititi, and that reaction was a sharp mixture of attraction and rejection. The rejection arrived from the idea that we needed to have yet another Holocaust set film that explored the atrocities of Hitler and World War II, especially after Quentin Tarantino's brilliant "Inglourious Basterds" (2009). The attraction was that the film looked so downright bizarre that I am extremely compelled to witness it. I am hoping that the press and curiosity surrounding the film will keep it in theaters for a few weeks so I am able to get to it.
The one thing in the way, so to peak, from me seeing "Jojo Rabbit" immediately is this film from Writer/Director Bong Joon-ho, a filmmaker whose reputation precedes him and yet, to this day, I still have not seen even one selection from his filmography. Yet, the press and curiosity surrounding t his film has made me extremely curious and I really want to dive into this one first!
Of course, I am curious to see what Writer/Director Rian Johnson has up his sleeves with his new all-star cast murder mystery after fully blowing me away with "Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi" (2017).
I know nothing about this film other than the trailer I saw earlier in the Summer, and I wish to keep it that way until Thanksgiving weekend!
Yes, that is quite a lot for the month but let's see what I can do. Wish me luck and as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!