Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight (1986) is not so much a movie as a complete work of art and a glowing tribute to the art of jazz. It transcends the confines of its medium to achieve a kind of lofty discourse on the nature of art. If there's anything imperfect about this film, it's only the inference that it took a Frenchman to deliver the kind of tribute that the distinctly American jazz idiom so richly deserves.
Historical Background: Tavernier was born in Lyons, France in 1941, the son of a poet and journalist. Like many of the New Wave directors, his association with cinema began with film magazines, such as Cahiers du Cinéma, where he wrote movie reviews. He often chose to review American films and developed something of an admiration for all things American or, at least, most. His own later approach as a filmmaker was influenced, to an extent, by the style of cinematography being practiced in Hollywood. His very first film, The Clockmaker (1973), made a splash, internationally. Tavernier had another major success with Coup de Torchon (1981). He was at the height of his creative powers in the mid-eighties, having just completed the magnificent A Sunday in the Country (1984), when his thoughts turned to making a tribute to jazz. While A Sunday in the Country was shot in the pastel hues of an impressionistic countryside painting in autumn, Round Midnight presented Tavernier with the diametrically opposite challenge of capturing the atmosphere of the nightlife of Paris. On the other hand, his two great films from the mid-eighties shared the characteristic of dealing with artists in the waning years of their careers. Other films from Tavernier's own twilight years included Life and Nothing But (1990) and D'Artagnan's Daughter (1994). Tavernier consistently proved to be a filmmaker of consummate taste and craftsmanship.
The Story: Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) is a struggling jazz musician. He pays a last stop in New York to a dying friend, Hershell (Leroy Bibbs), telling him about his plans to take his saxophone to Paris for an engagement at the Blue Note nightclub. Dale arrives in Paris but is soon entangled by twin torments: his addiction to booze and a bully of a manager, Buttercup (Sandra Reaves-Phillips), who locks him into his room during the day so that he'll be fit to play at night. Onstage, however, Dale plays his heart out, to the delight of the appreciative Parisian audiences. Between sets, he tries his best to scrounge drinks. Despite the pervasive oversight of Buttercup, he manages to steal off, occasionally, and drink himself into the kind of drunken stupor that lands him in the hospital.
Outside the club, a struggling young Parisian commercial artist, Francis Borler (François Cluzet), huddles next to a vent to listen to the great American jazzman whom he has admired for years. After several such evenings, Francis screws up his courage to approach his idol. Turner initially sees the young man merely as an opportunity to entice a few free drinks from an admiring fan, but gradually a friendship develops between the two kindred spirits. Francis lives with just his preteen daughter, Berangere (Gabrielle Haker), after their abandonment by his wife (and her mother). Francis "rescues" Dale from virtual enslavement to Buttercup, while also helping him fight his dependence on alcohol. "I just want the greatest sax player to live decently," says Francis. At the same time, Francis finds renewed motivation and joy in life through his devotion to Dale and to his daughter. All the while, the performances at the Blue Note go on each night, interspersed with some recording sessions in a studio. Turner's hypnotizing sax and the rest of the talented performers provide riffs for a jazz-lover's dreams.
Ultimately, however, Turner decides to return to New York to appear in a nightclub for a sleazy club owner (played by Martin Scorsese, ironically, in a cameo). How does Dale fare back in New York without his guardian angel? Well, now you have one more reason to check out this film, as if the lovingly fine treatment given the jazz idiom were not reason enough.
Themes: One central theme of Round Midnight is what it means to be an artist. It is a theme that Tavernier is well qualified to engage, as one of the premiere cinematic artists of his generation. Dale Turner is a musician who is both wedded to and enslaved by his art. One of his old friends explains to Francis, his new friend, why Dale is so tormented: "When you have to explore every night, even the beautiful things you find can be painful." Jazz is a musical form into which the musician has to pour the entirety of his soul, every time out. With an improvisational medium, you can't just show up, go through the motions, and give a routine performance. Dale's music dictates who he is, not the other way around. "You just don't go out and pick a style off a tree one day," he says, "the tree is inside you, growing naturally." So, one part of the story in Round Mountain is the tale of great musicians honing their talent while also struggling with personal torments, addictions, and suffering. So great is Turner's love of booze that he can say with a straight face, after observing a patron of the club literally keel over, "S'il vous plait, I would like to have the same thing he had."
This film is also about the priceless nature of friendship. Friendship is precious because it is not something that we can come by easily. Dale and Francis couldn't be more different in background, in temperament, even in race. Yet Francis wants to befriend Dale because the great jazz musician had been an inspiration to him as he was coming of age. Even when Francis watches over Dale like an over-protective mother, Dale accepts his nagging concern because he knows that it comes from genuine interest in his welfare. Turner even promises Francis that he'll quit drinking. "You've never stopped before," says the dubious Francis. "I've never promised before," responds Turner, revealing the depth of his devotion to Francis.
A third theme is America's unfortunate failure to adequately appreciate the beauty and artistry of the jazz idiom it had spawned. With the advent of Rock & Roll in the early fifties, and its enthusiastic embrace by the predominately white populace and media, jazz had been pushed aside. Jazz was too "sophisticated" and "difficult" and, possibly, too "black" as well, for mass marketing and consumption. Many of the top jazz musicians had to struggle to find gigs and many ended up making the trek to European cities, like Paris and Copenhagen, where the rhythms and inventiveness of jazz were better appreciated. America had abandoned its own musical offspring. Round Midnight, as Tavernier's celebration of jazz, adds further irony to America's relative disinterest in its first great and unique contribution to world culture. It took a Frenchman to pay tribute to the American art of jazz, while Hollywood largely ignored, and continues to ignore, jazz as subject matter for its films. Just as Dale was saved by the friendship of a Frenchman, be-bop found its champion in Tavernier.
The titular theme is the darkest one. Round Midnight has the feel of an elegy to a by-gone era in jazz. The Parisian jazz scene is now long gone and the Blue Note has been torn down, so it's easy to view what is depicted in this film as be-bop's eleventh hour, with the death knell scheduled "round midnight." The film opens with Dale Turner visiting his friend Hershell, an old jazz pianist, literally on his deathbed in New York, in a seedy hotel room. The film later ends, in a sense with the death of an era in the life of jazz. Jazz as an idiom survives, of course, but it has undergone many changes and spawned countless schools and styles. Jazz as an overall musical form goes on, but it evolves so much from one generation to the next that the individual styles pass away like moments in our lives. Round Midnight (taken from the title of a Thelonious Monk composition) is finally a nostalgic tribute to a by-gone time and place.
Production Values: One of the amazing things about this film is that the script is in many ways like jazz itself like its subject matter. The story was written by David Rayfiel and Tavernier but was then enhanced by improvisations and riffs provided by the musicians themselves, to give it added verisimilitude. The pacing is as leisurely as a reverie, with a depth of feeling reminiscent of a slow be-bop number. Viewers get the feeling of being part of the audience at the Blue Note in Paris, relaxing with a cool drink and soaking in the ambiance, rather than being in a movie theater or on one's sofa at home. The central character was created as an amalgam of several real life jazz musicians. The relationship between Dale and Francis was modeled after the real life relationship between jazz pianist Bud Powell and Francis Paudras, a French jazz enthusiast who provided Powell with friendship and help. Some of the other aspects of the story come from the life stories of sax men Lester Young and Charlie Parker, or that of the lead actor (and real-life jazz great) Dexter Gordon. Tavernier has thus created a film that is a genuine melding of two great artistic traditions jazz and filmmaking.
Even the camera movements mimic, in a sense, the subject matter. The camera glides lyrically and periodically trembles and flutters. At other times, in scenes without music, Tavernier keeps his camera fixed in place, as though it were waiting to dance again only after the music starts up. Tavernier is a master of atmosphere, and went to great pains with his sets to reproduce the genuine atmosphere of the Parisian jazz clubs and recording studios of the fifties. A velvety blue hue dominates the smoke-filled air at the Blue Note while the seedy apartments in both New York and Paris are shaded in dull browns and steely blues. The main bit of comedy in the film is a visual joke the kind of Mutt and Jeff contrast between the hulking Dexter Gordon, as Dale Turner, and the diminutive François Cluzet, as Francis Borler.
The accuracy of this film extends in equal measure to the unmistakable authenticity of the soundtrack. Tavernier enlisted the help of a coterie of the top jazz musicians who were contemporaneous with the Parisian be-bop scene of the late fifties. Herbie Hancock composed the music for the film and quite deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Soundtrack. Hancock (on the keyboard) is joined, in one or more of the musical sessions, by such jazz notables as Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Billy Higgins and Tony Williams (drums), Ron Carter (bass), and Lonette McKee and Bobby McFerrin (vocalists). Lonette McKee's appearance as Turner's old flame and her soulful performance is one of the film's highlights. Another is Sandra Reaves-Phillips performing a saucy little Billie Holliday number at a private party. Dexter Gordon plays beautifully, though he was well beyond his prime and would pass away just four years after the film's completion. Tavernier insisted that the music be recorded as the sessions were being filmed to give the story further authenticity. As a result, there are occasional imperfections in the performances, true to the art form. Jazz is music that is always in search of its ultimate expression.
Most important to the authenticity of the film was Tavernier's insistence on populating the story with genuine jazz musicians. Dexter Gordon gives a performance here that earned him an Academy Award nomination, despite being a first-time actor. Gordon imbues the role with realism and a genuine feeling for jazz that no ordinary actor could have achieved. Even the rhythm of his gestures and speech are in the be-bop idiom. His raspy voice, the result of years of drinking and smoking, defies typical film standards. His heavy-lidded visage also reveals the ravages of a hard life. Gordon lent some of the details of his own life to the film's particulars. Cluzet, as the principal non-musician in the cast, gives a fully credible performance as the devoted groupie, Francis. He looks a bit like a young Dustin Hoffman or a Sean Penn without the beak. He later appeared in Story of Women (1988).
Bottom-Line: Round Midnight is in mostly English with some smidgens of French. There are optional English subtitles. The film's running time is 131 minutes. There's a special Dolby digital soundtrack for those so equipped. The theatrical trailer is included as an extra.
This magnificent film is a loving tribute to jazz. That it was the initiative of a Frenchman and not Hollywood is American's shame and to France's great credit. The French may have gotten it wrong with Jerry Lewis, but they know enough to appreciate a great American musical idiom, embraced in America after 1950 by only a relatively small coterie of the culturally elite. No better film about jazz has ever been made, nor is one likely to be made anytime soon. This is not a story about an individual, but the story of a musical idiom.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from France:
The Battle of Algiers
La Belle et la Bête
Bob le Flambeur
Boudu Saved from Drowning
A Bout de Souffle
La Cage aux Folles
Céline and Julie Go Boating
Children of Paradise
Cléo from 5 to 7
Un Coeur en Hiver
Cyrano de Bergerac
The Dinner Game
The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Eyes Without a Face
La Femme Nikita
The Horseman on the Roof
Jean de Florette/Manon
The King of Hearts
Last Year at Marienbad
Life and Nothing But
A Man Escaped
The Mother and the Whore
La Nuit de Varennes
Pépé le Moko
The Rules of the Game
A Sunday in the Country
The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Wages of Fear
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age