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Film Editor Lewis Erskine on Finding the Rhythm for Miles Davis Doc ‘Birth of the Cool’

A still from Miles Davis: Birth
Guy Le Querrec

On-the-beat editing for the documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” comes courtesy of Lewis Erskine who brings rhythm to the images apace with that perfect flow of the jazz icon’s horn. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019 and earned a nomination at the NAACP’s 2020 Image Awards for outstanding documentary film. It premieres on PBS’ “American Masters” with additional footage tonight (Feb. 25).

“One of the responsibilities of editing, and the job, is to harness this huge amount of material and put it together,’ says Lewis, the film’s editor. “So it swings.”

And does it ever. In vintage photos and video footage cut together to the tempo of the soundtrack, every frame evokes the mood and era in each phase of Davis’ life — the somber melody; the raging fury; the sophisticated, poetic, jazz symphony — all artfully blended.

Speaking about the process of compiling material to be used in the film (including never-before-released mementos from the Miles Davis Estate), Erskine recalls: “Nicole London led a team of researchers who gathered all of that stuff. They organized it… where we can go through it. … The film is a result of an enormous amount of material gathered. Stanley gave me a chance to prove to them that what I want to do is going to work, but they retain veto power.”

Erskine, who holds a distinguished list of credits, nods to co-editors Natasha Mottola and Yusuf Kapadia for their collaboration and teamwork in bringing director Stanley Nelson’s vision and long time goal of documenting the Miles Davis story to life. Erskine was no stranger to working with Nelson having previously collaborated on the 1999 documentary, “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords.” Nelson personally picked him again for “Birth of the Cool.”

Both of Erskine’s parents played music in the home when he was growing up, but Erskine’s mother introduced him to Miles Davis. “I still have records that were her purchases,” he says. “She owned ‘Relaxin’.”

As a Professor of Arts at NYU, Erskine teaches film editing and production to a new generation of filmmakers. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, he followed his passion for music and “dropped out of college to work in a recording studio.” Since he’s moved to editing, directors seek him out for his talent and rhythmic style. “That’s me, making it work with music,’ says Lewis. “A film doesn’t work unless it’s got rhythm. If you think of jokes – the joke doesn’t work unless you tell it with the right rhythm and the right timing. A film needs the same thing.”