Judge Dan Mancini ain't Bean...or anybody else.
You just don't go out and pick a style off a tree one day. The tree is inside you, growing naturally.—Dale Turner
Dexter Gordon was the man. Even in the late '60s when jazz movers-and-shakers like John Coltrane and Miles Davis were pushing the boundaries of the genre with dissonant experimentation and modalism, Gordon was wowing other players with his old school ways. On the surface, his style is lyrical and simple, but it's all about taste. Other players might be able to imitate one of his solos note for note, but they'd never have the inspiration to pick the notes he did all on their own and to play them with the smooth round tones he could coax from his tenor saxophone. In a career that began in the postwar bebop era and spanned to his death in 1990, Gordon was never about technical wizardry; he was about elegance, beauty, and pouring his soul into every note he played. He was one of those rare cats who always managed to play the right note—always.
In Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight—a pastiche of the troubled lives of jazz pianist Bud Powell and tenor saxophonist Lester Young—Gordon plays Dale Turner, an American jazz musician living as an expatriate in Paris at the end of the 1950s. Turner has a regular gig at the Blue Note night club, but has otherwise hit the skids. Weary, drained of passion, estranged from his family, an alcoholic, music is his only solace in an otherwise dreary world. That is until he meets Francis Borler (François Cluzet, Story of Women), a fan who first befriends Turner, then takes him under his wing. The surrogate family of Borler and his young daughter give shape to Turner's life and, in the process, revitalize his music.
As a human drama, Round Midnight is fascinating if slowly paced, somewhat predictable, and burdened with an ending that may not be happy but is slightly too hopeful. It's events are mostly inspired by the latter years of bebop innovator Bud Powell, who suffered from both alcoholism and schizophrenia (Miles Davis's account in his autobiography of the drastic change in Powell's personality after his return from a stint in a mental institution where he'd received electro-shock therapy is one of the most tragic passages in a tome filled with tragedy). Like Turner in the movie, Powell moved to Paris in the late 1950s as his musical prowess was in decline, worked small clubs, and was taken financial advantage of by a female friend/manager nicknamed Buttercup. That is, until the intervention of a fan, Francis Paudras, who acted as Powell's manager and took care of him in his waning years.
From the life of tenor saxophone legend Lester Young (one of Gordon's heroes) comes the movie's anecdote of Turner having been rousted from the Army because he was married to a white woman better looking than one of the white officer's wives. And like Powell, Young was an alcoholic prone to eccentric and often self-destructive behavior.
Being that the movie is a pastiche and not a straight biopic of either Powell or Young, little of it would be interesting without Tavernier's intense focus on the music Turner plays. The film's beautiful original score was composed by jazz giant Herbie Hancock (who rightly won an Oscar for his work). Its interpretation by non-actor/musician extraordinaire Dexter Gordon is what makes Round Midnight truly special. Tavernier understands how momentous it is to have a real jazz legend playing real music in his film instead of an actor aping a performance to a recorded track. He lets his camera act as audience member while he captures lengthy passages of musical performance. Gordon is only passable in the thespian department, depending largely on his own authenticity instead of a studied approach to the craft of acting—his gruff voice, hang-dog features, and long, softening frame are those of, well, a real jazzman. His mediocre line reads hardly matter because watching him onstage is magnetic—in part because he isn't quite the Gordon of old. That he has lost a step or two makes Turner's plight that much more real and immediate.
More than simply the tragic story of a man rapidly approaching his own midnight, Tavernier's movie is about jazz itself. Turner's plight reflects not only the experiences of many black jazz musicians who fled pre-Civil Rights America for Europe, but the plight of the art form itself: a uniquely American form of music that had to limp off to Europe to find appreciation, support, and the means to survive.
This new release of Round Midnight appears to be identical to the disc released back in 2001, except with a keep case instead of a snapper. That's not an altogether bad thing, really, as the transfer is strong and the Dolby 5.1 surround mix was supervised by Herbie Hancock. Dialogue has a flat mono or stereo vibe about it, but the music sounds stupendous, filling the entire soundstage with instrumentation so luscious you'll think you're sitting in the Blue Note.
The disc's menus are static and the extras are old school to the extreme: text-based cast and crew biographies, an "Awards" option that leads to a page listing Hancock's Academy Award win for Best Original Score (I don't recall any mention of Gordon's nomination for Best Actor), and a theatrical trailer.
As elegant yet unpretentious as its lead actor, Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight expresses mythic truths, evokes an era, laments an under-appreciated art form, and tries to transform its audience into jazz fans. But even if it didn't do all that, simply watching Dexter Gordon play would still be worth a couple hours of your time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Cast and Crew Biographies
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