'Round Midnight follows the life of a fictional jazz musician named Dale Turner (played very well by real life jazz musician, Dexter Gordon). A saxophone player by trade, Dale has a hefty drinking problem that he can't quite shake and as such, his life isn't as glorious as he might want. His family have distanced themselves from him and while he's got the talent to really shine with his music, his alcoholism confines him to playing in a small, dank, New York City club.
Dale's luck changes one day when he gets offered a chance to play in Paris. Around this time, Paris was quickly becoming a safe haven for American jazz musicians who just weren't finding the same sort of appreciation that the French would offer them in their homeland. He takes the offer and is refreshed in a way to see that he's treated well by people of all races and that the stereotypes that hampered him in American don't seem to be a problem in Paris. This doesn't help at all with his drinking, however, and Dale's self destructive behavior soon brings him to the attention of a concerned fan named Francis (Francois Cluzet) who tries to help him. Francis' family treats Dale as one of their own and his daughter in particular helps him to find his inspiration to clean up his act. Unfortunately for Dale, the damage may already be done...
A little too predictable for its own good (even the title tells you where it's going, really) and a bit slow in spots, 'Round Midnight is never the less a very well made film. Written and directed by Bernard Tavernier, the film is an interesting and very humanized dramatic look at one man's battle with alcohol and the effects it has on his person and his career. Dexter Gordon makes for a likeable enough lead actor, his raspy voice conjuring up memories of the late, great Louis Armstrong at times, and his sax playing in the film is fantastic. He isn't the most charismatic guy at times, but he certainly feels right for the part. His back and forth with Francois Cluzet feels sincere enough that we can believe their friendship is genuine and the two share an enjoyable on screen chemistry in the picture.
'Round Midnight is a nicely shot picture. The camera work is as smooth as the music that plays such an important part in the film and the picture has plenty of style to spare without ever feeling over done. Quiet scenes, such as when Turner talks to Francois' daughter about basketball while they watch the rain come down outside tend to be shot from a little further back, giving some of the film a 'fly on the wall' feel. The lighting in the film feels very natural and it compliments the camerawork quite nicely. The movie feels properly polished without ever resorting to style over substance. The cameras also do an excellent job of capturing the streets of Paris, not the glitzy or glamorous side of the city that is in so many movies but the less than picture perfect part of the city and some of the smaller, hole-in-the-wall clubs that can be found there.
The really stand out part of 'Round Midnight, however, is the score. Composed and conducted by the legendary Herbie Hancock, the Academy Award winning soundtrack fits in perfectly with the look of the film and the story it tells. Tavernier wisely chooses to focus on the musical side of this fictional bio-pic (culled from the lives and careers of musicians Bud Powell and Lester Young) and let the sax speak for Turner when called for. It's here, during these scenes that Dexter Gordon really and truly shines in the role. As good as he is during the dramatic moments of the picture, it's when he's going to town on his saxophone that the picture really lights up. It's a tragic picture in many ways but it's an interesting exploration of the era and, fictional or not, a plight that seems to have affected many of the greats from that era who essentially built jazz into a now very respected art form.
'Round Midnight is presented an anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer that looks quite good even if it's a bit dark in some spots. There's a fine coat of grain over the whole picture that gives it a gritty feel without overshadowing the cinematography. Color reproduction looks nice and accurate as do skin tones and detail levels are fine throughout. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement to note, this is a well authored disc of some fairly good looking source material. Every once in a while you might notice the odd speck or two of print damage but thankfully this isn't a constant problem and so it isn't distracting or problematic.
Warner Brothers provides a good quality English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix as with optional subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The 5.1 track is pretty solid, using the rear channels to fill in the score nicely and to provide some welcome ambient noise when called for. Almost all of the dialogue comes from the front of the sound mix, the rears are really only used for music and the odd sound effect. Dialogue is sharp and clear and the levels are all well balanced. Not surprisingly, the score is quite prominent in the mix and it sounds quite nice here, the horns in particular have a nice resonant quality to them. Burned in English subtitles appear on the screen during some of the French language scenes.
Disappointingly, the extras on this disc are pretty limited. Aside from the static menus and chapter selection, we get a list of awards that the film won, a cast and crew listing with a couple of brief (and out of date) biographies, and the film's original theatrical trailer (1:30, anamorphic widescreen). It would have been nice to have Herbie Hancock's score presented as a secondary audio track (like Warner Brothers did with their recent re-release of Eastwood's Bird), but that didn't happen.
An interesting look at the some of the problems that surrounded black musicians during the birth of jazz, 'Round Midnight is well made, well acted, and beautifully score. Warner's DVD reissue doesn't bring anything new to the table and the extras are pretty slim but it looks and sounds alright and the film itself is good entertainment. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.