Miles Davis’ celebrated 38-minute set at the Isle of Wight in 1970 — entitled, in an off-the-cuff answer to query about piece’s name, “Call It Anything” — is the jewel in the crown of “Miles Electric.”Concert with 600,000-strong crowd shortly preceeded Davis’ groundbreaking “Bitches Brew” album, where he famously, and controversially, went “electric.” Extraordinary concert coverage and beautifully plotted segues between musicians then and now should gratify neophytes and hardcore Davis fans alike. Pic is slotted for November DVD release following New York Film Festival kickoff.
At docu’s outset, helmer Murray Lerner parades a long succession of musicians who have played with Davis or have been influenced by him. Carlos Santana acts as spokesman for those who believe the evolution of Miles’ music through electrification is positive, while jazz critic Stanley Crouch makes a brief but memorable appearance as dissenter, speaking against Miles’ descent into formlessness, recounting his own many vain attempts, in various stages of altered consciousness, to tolerate “Bitches Brew.”
Herbie Hancock, interviewed in the present, intros Davis’ earlier, purely acoustical incarnation as the Miles Davis quintet (with Hancock on keyboard and Davis attired in a natty Italian suit) swings into its signature “So What” in an excerpt from a 1964 “The Steve Allen Show.”
But it is the sidemen who played with Davis on that memorable Aug. 9 night in 1970 who form the backbone of Lerner’s film.
Ironically, with the exception of a ridiculously young-looking Dave Holland on base guitar, those actually playing electrical instruments on stage during the momentous “I of W” gig were acoustical musicians who were highly resistant to electricity at first. Chick Corea’s initial disgust at the tinny-sounding Fender Rhodes was already fading in light of the electric piano’s wonderfully weird distortion modules, but Keith Jarrett, stuck on electric organ since the piano was already taken, wondered which instrument he loathed the most.
Yet despite musicians’ disinclination to getting plugged in and fear of unknown territory, it is clear that they would have played cowbells and triangles for the chance to jam with the maestro. Indeed, in the array of esoteric percussion instruments rattled and shaken by Airto Moreira, a cowbell would not have been out of place. Jack DeJohnette on drums and Gary Bartz on soprano sax rounded out the group.
Following a dinky rendition of “There Will Always Be an England” by Tiny Tim, Miles Davis’ septet takes the stage. After pic’s exhaustive 40-minute buildup of backstory, all the players seem so fully familiar that the music can be allowed to unfold in a leisurely manner and the camera can rest on various musicians without the usual star-driven impatience for Davis to raise his trumpet. Amazingly full, multi-angled 16mm coverage (restored on HD) allows Lerner to orchestrate his footage with none of the jump-cut restlessness that frequently affects the editing of live concerts. Einar Westerlund and Edward Goldberg’s montage comes off as mellow and unrushed as Miles Davis’ trance-y, ever-changing music.
Lerner and his editors capture Davis leaving and re-entering center-stage to stand and play dramatically framed against the falling light without undue fanfare but to compelling audio and visual effect. Sound is remastered with stunning clarity.
Stellar pic’s only downside is that, in their haste to stress the fusion elements of Davis’ work and link him to legendary rock ‘n’ rollers such as Jimi Hendrix, filmmakers tend to downplay the extent to which Davis was evolving in directions wholly tangential to acoustical jazz. Thus, they inadvertently strand him in jazz history limbo.