Round Midnight

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ROUND MIDNIGHT Is Where It's At for Jazz!

Aug 25, 2000 (Updated Feb 12, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, direction by Bertrand Tavernier, production design by Alexander Trauner.

Cons:Watching the destruction of a talented artist, pretty close to the reality of Dexter Gordon.

The Bottom Line: ROUND MIDNIGHT is a moving human drama of a great artist, based on a real life story, with superb musical recreations and arrangements. You will not forget Dexter Gordon's performance.

ROUND MIDNIGHT (1986) is an unforgettable film about exile, and the struggle to keep the deepest and most original music of the 20th Century alive. The time is 1959, and in the typical fashion of American commercial art, the greatest living Jazz Artists of the previous 30 years are being thrown on the trash. A giant like Louis Armstrong, his wind gone, can still be hailed singing and faking it in Hollywood and on TV, but the younger leaders and sidemen, are failing to find gigs. America has fallen in love with Elvis Presley and rock and roll. The process of addicting the young to the lowest common denominator, destroying their normal maturation, and making them Kings and Queens of the Market Place, is well advanced.

It is a process that will sell American young people trillions of dollars worth of useless junk, and it will also morally cripple several generations as they become adults and parents.

Large numbers of American Jazzmen followed Media and Stage figures who had fled from McCarthyism in the previous decade to Europe. People like Bud Powell, Lester Young, countless others, moved to Paris, where the French, in their idiosyncratic way, embraced American Jazz, and condemned American Imperialism, as they struggled under DeGaulle to retain their North African Colonies. The latter ambition collapsed, but we may be happily indebted to Minister of Culture Andre Malraux for encouraging American musicians in the little Jazz clubs, which still dot Paris, and eventually sending back a new generation of American, French and African Jazz musicians.

ROUND MIDNIGHT, in many ways, illustrates the moebius flip of an old Pet Milk Can.

Dale Turner, a 60 year-old exiled, alcoholic, heroin-addicted be-bopster, is based on the later lives of exiles Powell and Young. He is played by legendary Tenor Saxophonist Dexter Gordon, himself struggling with similar demons, near the end of his career. And on and on.

The film begins as Turner visits his dying friend and colleague Hershell (Hart Leroy Bibbs) in New York to say good bye. On the wagon, partly because no one wants his music anymore, he is flying to an engagement in one of those little Parisian clubs: The Blue Note. These two are men who were famous in their time, and the seedy poverty evident around Hershell's bed suggests Dale Turner has no where to go but to Europe.

In Paris, he is put under domestic house arrest by an old girlfriend, Butterfly (Sandra Reeves-Phillips). The Blue Note, where he is released to play with a quartet in the evenings, is crowded with an International clientel, worshipful of the great Dale Turner. All goes well for a time, until one night he is waylaid, on a break, by a poor French fan, Francis Borler (Francois Cluzet). Dale sees an opportunity: "Hey, mon, buy me a drink?"

But of course!

Across the alley, "a fatal glass of beer" launches a relationship with the single Father Borler which will last to the end of Dale Turner's life. Borler knows how accomplished Dale is as a Saxophonist, but he also comes to sense the loneliness and despair in his idol's life. He sees how playing obsessively under the worst possible conditions for a man with Turner's weakness has nearly destroyed him. Borler soon finds himself bailing Turner out of hospitals and jails, covering for him as best he can with Butterfly, and making Dale a kind of uncle to his young daughter Berangere (Gabrielle Haker).

Back at the Club, we meet visiting firemen passing through: former loves, colleagues and admirers. Darcy Liegh (Lonette McKee), reminiscent of Lena Horne, breezes in to sing a number in Dale's glow. A slick New York club owner Goodley (Martin Scorsese) swindles him. The laconic Redon (Philippe Noiret) cruises by. And of course, he has some of the greatest living "sidemen" supporting him: Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Eric LeLann, Pierre Michelot, and Wayne Shorter. There is a whole other crew backing Hancock's soundtrack, led by Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, and of course, Bobbie McFerrin. While Dale's personal life is a see-saw shambles, he continues to produce sublime modern music.

Dale eventually returns to New York to find his friend Hershell dead. In the power of his obsession with his jazz hero, Francis leaves his daughter with his estranged wife and accompanies Dale, resolved to guard him and his talent. He is soon fighting the jackals and heroin dealers, who gather around a recovering celebrity in large American cities.

Hollywood always had a checkered relationship with Jazz. It used popular music of all sorts from the time the Movies learned to play and sing. The late 1930's and early 1940's were filled with B-movies featuring the likes of teen-age Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan, who typically jitter bug so infectuously that their ancient parents discard old losers like Beethoven and Mozart.

So-called Serious Jazz, however, was kept at arms length as a subject for A-films. Orson Welles' projected Jazz segment in IT'S ALL TRUE (1942) may have stimulated BIRTH OF THE BLUES (Shwertzinger, 1941), BLUES IN THE NIGHT (Litvak, 1941), SYNOCPATION (Dieterle, 1942) and CABIN IN THE SKY (Minnelli, 1943), but Welles' project itself only managed to limp into theaters as Arthur Lubin's NEW ORLEANS, in 1947. Three years later, a major production dealt with Dorothy Baker's novel about Bix Beiderbeck, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (Curtiz, 1950). Dragnet-famed Jack Webb wrote, directed and starred in PETE KELLY'S BLUES (1955). And PARIS BLUES (Ritt, 1961) is a cheerful look at the period and setting of ROUND MIDNIGHT.

I mention the above films, many of them involving excellent talents, because ROUND MIDNIGHT blows them all away. The distinguished French Director Bertrand Tavernier (SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY, 1984), the great Saxophonist Dexter Gordon, the resourceful Jazz Composer Herbie Hancock, the inspired Production Designer Alexander Trauner, and a marvelous group of actors and musicians combined their talents to create this story of a musician and a musical form. It has not been equaled, before or since.

I said ROUND MIDNIGHT was a story of Exile. Here is why I say that. Bud Powell and Lester Young, on whom the film is based, spent much of their later careers at the Blue Note and other clubs in Paris. (Francis Borler is fashioned after Amateur Pianist Francis Paudras, who became a friend of Piano Genius Bud Powell there.) Martin Scorsese worked with Tavernier in France early in his career. Ben the Blue Note Club owner is played by (the late) John Berry. Berry was a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater. After taking over from Welles as director of Richard Wright's play, Native Son, and heading up its National Company, Berry followed Welles to Hollywood. Berry directed several movies, including 1951's HE RAN ALL THE WAY, but he was forced to exile himself in France by the Black List to find work, where he spent much of the rest of his career.

Tavernier's ROUND MIDNIGHT is a worthy tribute to the subject of Jazz and to all these brilliant exiles.

One of the reasons for the power of the film is that Tavernier worked the action of the film into Hancock's score and the Jazz Group's improvisations. The music includes such standards as "Body and Soul," "Fair Weather," and "How Long Has This Been Going On?" Hancock contributes "The Peacocks," "Berangere's Nightmare," "Una Noche Con Francis," and "Chan's Song," etc.

Gordon, who was not a professional actor, improvised much of his part in an inimitable Saxophone-like voice, drawing on his knowledge of the life, and the models for the screen play, whom he knew. This mixture, set in Alexander Trauner's smoky, neon shaded club, and funky flats, is overwhelming.

Hancock won an Oscar for his Score, and Dexter Gordon was nominated for his performance. It was a comeback for him, but he was dead within three years.

If you like good music, an intensely human story, or the History of Our Recent Musical Past, you won't do better than renting ROUND MIDNIGHT.


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