I have always maintained that there are very few movies about music that actually get it right. For a variety of reasons, Hollywood needs to dumb down the artistic and human aspects of musicians the same way it does with cops, cowboys and young lovers. It all just comes across as phony. ‘Round Midnight on the other hand takes a far more prosaic, realistic and human turn, presenting the story of a jazz musician who is three-dimensional, fraught with weakness and utterly believable. In one of the greatest casting coups in film history, director Bertrand Tavernier cast real-life jazz giant Dexter Gordon as the pro/ant-agonist of his melancholy character study that perfectly captures the grey-hued realities of an artistic life reaching its natural denouement.
Dexter Gordon’s character, Dale Turner, is a composite of Bud Powell, Lester Young and Gordon himself. The movie takes place in 1959 Paris, the same year that Bud Powell and Lester Young lived and played there and when Gordon himself performed a famous session with Powell, observing first hand the decline of a once great player. This very intermingling of fact, fiction and insight is ultimately what makes ‘Round Midnight so successful. Dale Turner is living and playing in Paris to small, adoring audiences, but his life is a shambles: he is a hopeless alcoholic, he suffers from crippling depression, he is broke and alone in the world and as he proclaims “I’m tired of everything but the music.” This is much the same state both Young and Powell found themselves in during this time period. Bud Powell met and befriended a Frenchman named Francis Paudras who became his caretaker and savior in many ways. It is in this historical detail that the movie finds its central theme. The relationship that Dale Turner and Francis develop; slowly, carefully, poignantly growing from hero worship to co-dependence, to nurturance is drawn with such aching realism that it almost transcends the movie’s many other virtues. Francis saves Turner’s life, returns some sense of pride to the wounded warrior and in exchange Turner opens his heart and mind to Francis and his young daughter as they struggle to become some kind of fractured family unit. The stability of family and a temporary respite from drink allow Turner to play with renewed vitality, and it is in the music that ‘Round Midnight finds its other pillar of greatness. With a who’s who of 60’s and 70’s jazz greats led by music director Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Billy Higgins, John McLaughlin, and many other top-notch players give the movie absolute musical veracity. The band plays tight, perfect arrangements as Dexter carefully lays out his patented solos with unimaginable tone and restraint. The director gives the music enough time to seep into the fabric of the movie. It isn’t a movie with a soundtrack, it is a movie where the music is one of the stars.
As Turner comes back to life, he is inexorably drawn back to America. Francis takes him to New York City where temptation, corruption and more sadness await. They part, Francis returning to Paris to fix his own life and relationships, Dale Turner to sadly go down in flames much as Lester Young and Bud Powell did. The sad arc of the action never feels clichéd because it is all based on true life stories.
The real miracle of ‘Round Midnight is Dexter Gordon’s enchanting, heartbreaking, almost mystical performance as Dale Turner. He fills every frame with honesty and pathos that could only be born of hard experience. He doesn’t play it for cheap sentiment either; we see him as an incorrigible alcoholic, an uninvolved parent, and a drifter without home. But, at the same time we are shown a man of rare artistic temperament, deeply sensitive to his own muse and living for one thing; he states near the end of the movie, “I’m dying of everything…except music,” and it is clear that what he really means is he is living only for music.
Compared to other movies about legendary musicians, ‘Round Midnight succeeds as a complex, nuanced exploration of the artistic impulse and its double-edged sword: talent. Instead of wallowing in heroic cliché or romantic bullshit it attempts to look gritty reality square in the eye. ‘Round Midnight strikes true as an exploration of music, musicians and those who circle their orbit. It is an unforgettable look at a unique time and place in the history of jazz.
- Paul Epstein