Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight is a densely atmospheric tribute to the American jazz musicians who fled second-class citizen status in favor of the enthusiastic and adoring audiences of Europe. While a fictional work, the film features many real life musicians portraying thinly disguised versions of themselves; avoiding the sanitized artifice that plagues so many films about jazz. Tavernier does not ask us to accept Sal Mineo as Gene Krupa or regal Diana Ross as used-and-abused Billie Holiday. The expat musicians here huddled in a seedy Paris hotel are played by real life jazz stars; names like Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin. And what they may lack in dramatic polish is more than made up by a convincing off-center sensibility. Jazz musicians live in a deeply introspective world, and the character interactions in this film quietly sizzle with just the right touch of awkwardness.
In a squalid New York hotel room, Dale Turner, an aging saxophonist, says goodbye to his dying musical mentor Hershel (Hart Leroy Bibbs) and departs for Paris, where there is still a growing audience for bebop. Turner is played by Dexter Gordon, a real life tenor sax great and Grammy winning recording artist. Art often imitates life in this film and Gordon made a similar exodus during his own career, spending much of the 1960s based in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
The hulking Gordon consumes the role – there is no other word for it – with the same improvisational verve found in his sax solos. He delivers his lines of dialogue with long, loopy pauses peppered by occasional bursts of verbal 16th notes. He affects the gravelly voice of the classic burn-out; a life lived on a steady diet of whisky, heroine and Gitanes. Gordon’s vocal tonality here is reminiscent of the impossibly low, hair-raising notes he often achieved on his tenor sax – notes previously thought beyond the instrument’s capability and a hallmark of his best recordings.
Once in Paris, Turner becomes a virtual ward of Buttercup (an outstanding performance by Sandra Reeves-Phillips), a sort of potty mouthed version of Mother Teresa for wayward musicians. Buttercup leases out hotel rooms to expat jazzmen and keeps them fed, punctual for club dates and, most important of all, off the junk. Turner spends his evenings performing at the Blue Note, a smoky, low ceilinged hipster warren. There Turner regains and refines his improvisational chops, while the bar’s crusty proprietor (the great John Berry) keeps an eagle eye on Turner’s glass, insuring that nothing stronger than Perrier finds its way in.
Production designer Alexander Trauner and set builder Phillipe Turlure do outstanding work here recreating the small club and the adjacent side street. The rhombus layout of Paris lends itself to convincing and playful exterior sets, but here the men show admirable restraint. They resist the temptation to lard the tableau with neon signs and traffic, offering instead a placid neighborhood of second tier watering holes and bakeries; exactly the kind of low profile venue a wounded spirit would go to regroup.
As Turner’s audiences steadily grow, his performances attract a struggling young illustrator named Francis (Francois Cluzet), who huddles by a basement window, happy to absorb the music for just a few muffled minutes. Francis’s flighty wife (Christine Pascal) has deserted him and their 12 year old daughter (Gabrielle Haker), and the financial strain has made an evening at a jazz club an unthinkable luxury. One night between sets, Francis works up the courage to approach this god of the saxophone, who gravelly asks, “Hey man, can you buy me a beer?” Francis eventually realizes that this is not the indomitable Dale Turner he grew up idolizing, but a penniless, desiccated husk whose talent has gone to seed.
As an unlikely friendship develops between these two lost souls, Tavernier elects to present without a shred of sentimentality. And there’s ample opportunity, for Francis soon experiences the many worries and frustrations wrought by a personal relationship with the self-destructive. But these two men, utterly dissimilar and from different sides of the world, manage to find their missing qualities in each other. Francis puts aside his self pity and rediscovers the inspiration to pursue his artistic career, while Dale realizes that musical exploration need not be a fearful and lonely endeavor.
But there are no climactic, cathartic moments where all is made right and the principals find themselves on the fast track to success. Tavernier is too smart for that and, fortunately, he knows his audience is as well. The creative life, while full of exhilaration and despair, is above all a long tough slog. Eventually Dale will seek to return to the scene of his former glory and, in the process, his new found strength will be severely tested. And this time, the stakes are a lot higher for the saxophonist than merely his musical reputation.
But the trials of Dale Turner serve only as a narrative background wash, for ‘Round Midnight is really a film more about music than musicians. There are a number of wonderful performances here, and Tavernier integrates them so seamlessly the film avoids any sense of being a biography occasionally interrupted by music. From the opening strains of “As Time Goes By”, it should be clear to audiences that these extrapolations by Turner are the last remaining links to his dissolute past.
Dexter Gordon’s solo technique heavily exploited intentional lateness – he was always slightly behind the beat – but the result is an exciting expansion of the melody; making familiar tunes refreshing and new. This musical reimaging was the stock-in-trade of bebop; its practitioners were to jazz what the impressionists were to painting. And while the film alludes to critical favorites like Charlie Parker and Lester Young, no one was better at it than Dexter Gordon.
This film was made 25 years ago, and Dexter Gordon has been dead and buried for 20 of them. Whether anyone will even be playing bebop 25 years from now is an open question. Sadly, I suspect the answer is no. But if some future musician should attempt a revival of this uniquely American style, it will probably be a result of seeing this film. ‘Round Midnight is unquestionably the greatest film ever made about jazz. I submit it’s also the greatest film ever made about music, and the frail human souls who create it.