Just as Bob Dylan’s decision to plug in marked a turning point for modern folk music, Miles Davis’s utilization of electric instruments, rock rhythms, and free-form improvisation in his iconoclastic late-‘60s jazz compositions heralded the dawn of a new era for both the musician’s career and the musical genre itself. In Electric Miles: A Different Kind of Blue, filmmaker Murray Lerner (an Oscar winner for 1980’s From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China and director of the 1997 doc Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival) traces Davis’s revolutionary abandonment of his traditional “So What” jazz in favor of a striking amalgam of classic and contemporary sounds that culminated in 1969’s unparalleled “Bitches Brew.”
A visionary who was always more interested in the future than the past (in a telling 1986 interview, he admits to having not revisited his previous work in nearly four decades), Davis’s decision to embellish his hellacious trumpeting with amped-up guitars, keyboards, organs, and rock n’ roll percussion was viewed as blasphemy by jazz purists—among them New York Times critic Stanley Crouch, who detested “Bitches Brew” whether sober or “with a great change in my consciousness.” Yet the inimitable album became the bestselling jazz record of all time, and led to Davis’s groundbreaking participation alongside contemporary acts such as The Who and The Doors in front of 600,000 people at 1970’s legendary Isle of Wight festival.
Lerner’s reverential film carefully dissects the evolution of the trumpeter’s trailblazing sound, using archival and new interviews (with Davis and colleagues such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Carlos Santana, and Joni Mitchell) to chronicle the range of influences—notably James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly & the Family Stone—that helped transform his music into an innovative wall of free-form sonic emotion. The director, however, is wise to show rather than tell whenever possible, complementing his narrative not only with Davis’s live playing on The Steve Allen Show and at a rousing Copenhagen gig, but also with an uncut presentation of the awe-inspiring 38-minute Isle of Wight performance that brought Davis’s new hybrid style (which guitarist Pete Cosey correctly notes wasn’t even truly “jazz”) to the masses.
While Lerner’s film is no worse for avoiding a recitation of Davis’s upbringing in St. Louis or formative collaborations with Charlie Parker, his cinematic tribute is slightly weakened by its perfunctory handling of the overwhelming criticism that greeted Davis’s masterpiece. Although former bandmates regularly mention the old jazz guard’s disdain for Davis’s experimental output, and we’re informed that Crouch (quoting Nietzsche’s appraisal of Wagner) wrote at the time that “Bitches Brew” was “the greatest example of self-violation in the history of art,” the film’s canonization of Davis’s pioneering album suffers from contextual shallowness. Nonetheless, on the overwhelming strength of its performance footage alone, Lerner’s Miles Electric is a knockout, reaffirming that—like Jack Johnson and Sugar Ray Robinson, two pugilists he adored—Davis was nothing less than an undisputed heavyweight.