Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight (1986) takes as its source the rich social and musical lives of some of the finest, most volatile jazz legends of the be-bop era. Dale Turner, as played by saxophonist Dexter Gordon, combines the addictions of Charlie Parker, the pork-pie hat style of Lester Young, and the cantankerous personality of Thelonius Monk. In fact, he stands in for his entire musical style, playing with an unusual rhythm that dances around the beat.
The film takes place in Paris in the fifties, a time when many jazz musicians were flocking to France seeking better treatment and more appreciative audiences. In Paris Dale meets Francis (François Cluzet, who looks like a cross between Ed Norton and Sean Penn). Francis has been a big fan of Dale's for much of his life and attributes some of his greatest inspirations to Dale's music. When Francis meets Dale, older and a bit rundown, he decides to return the favor by taking Dale into his home and helping him get back on his feet.
What follows is a sweet, if slow-paced, film about two men coming together in common appreciation of each other and the music that introduced them.
While the characters are well-drawn and the music is beautiful, the story does lag at times. Even though it makes itself clear as a quiet, paced film early on, there is still something of a lack of movement. Dale struggles to keep his alcoholism under control, but this struggle is entirely internalized and barely registers (except for one terrific moment early on when pianoman Herbie Hancock slides a drink down his keyboard, away from Dale mid-song). Gordon is an impressive on-screen presence (he passed away in 1990) and, even though his acting can be halting and stiff at times, his low-rumble voice sounds like a crocodile who spent a lifetime smoking Pall Malls and his tenor sax playing is, of course, extremely convincing and beautiful.
The anamorphic video on 'Round Midnight is terrific. It has a similar color palette to Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic Bird (which also featured a Paris segment), with dark blacks and muted earth-tones. The transfer is near flawless.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is sharp and sounds great. Herbie Hancock's Oscar-winning score really shines. The dialog can be a little quiet, especially given Turner's gruff voice, but it sounds good.
When subtitles are off the French dialog is subtitled. French, Spanish, English, and Portuguese subtitles track are also available.
The only extras are a trailer, an awards screen (which only lists Hancock's Oscar) and bios for the stars, Hancock, and Tavernier.
While some viewers may wonder where the drama is, fans of be-bop will definitely enjoy the opportunity to see Gordon playing characteristics of so many icons. This is a film that rewards patience.
Other Jazz reviews:
Also by director Bertrand Tavernier:
Hi De Ho / The Duke is Tops
A Great Day in Harlem
Coup De Torchon - Criterion Collection