Movie Review: Round Midnight (1986)

round_midnight_xlg‘Round Midnight’ turns 30 today, and its status as one of the great jazz movies was confirmed at a birthday screening last night at the Cine Lumiere in South Kensington.

Whilst the recent ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Miles Ahead’ were moderate commercial successes, they were subject to withering criticism in some quarters – I was with the naysayers regarding the former but, after watching the trailer, couldn’t even drag myself to the latter.

So until Woody Allen makes his long-promised big-budget ‘birth of jazz’ film, ‘Round Midnight’ is probably the best we’re gonna get. Its success even ushered in a short-lived Hollywood jazz revival – Clint Eastwood produced the wonderful ‘Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser’ (1987) and directed the underwhelming ‘Bird’ (1988), followed by Bruce Weber’s acclaimed Chet Baker documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’ (1988) and Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues’ (1990).

‘Round Midnight’ is loosely based on the memoir/biography ‘Dance Of The Infidels’ by Francis Paudras, a Parisian graphic designer who befriended legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell – and became his carer, business manager and confidante – during Bud’s expat period.

The film focuses mainly on the relationship between Francis and Dale Turner, a fictional mash-up of Powell and saxophonist Lester Young. My dad and I loved ‘Round Midnight’ from first viewing and, at a guess, very much related to Francis’s passion for jazz and desire to see his hero ‘living well’, rather than scuffling from gig to gig, drink to drink (Dad visited Paudras in France in the late ’80s in his capacity as a TV producer, but the proposed documentary never got made).

Put simply, the film ‘gets’ jazz; it’s immediately obvious that almost everyone involved loves the music and its players. Despite an incredibly slow, dark (as in: you can’t really see what’s going on) opening 20 minutes, ‘Round Midnight’ finally delivers the grandeur, romance and tragedy of America’s classical music.

Dexter Gordon’s Oscar-nominated lead performance still thrills, 30 years on. Though his character mainly spends the first half of the film trying to get wasted, we can forgive him anything, especially when we hear of the beatings and racist abuse regularly doled out during his time in the army (this dialogue, according to director/co-writer Bertrand Tavernier, was pure autobiography on Gordon’s part).

Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese has some fun with his portrayal of the fairly sleazy New York booking agent Goodley, while Francois Cluzet gives a strong, touching performance as the quick-tempered though loyal Francis.

Tavernier has finally found a way to represent jazz on screen, and it couldn’t be simpler – just round up the best players available (including Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, most of whom also have speaking parts), get them to play live and capture a performance in one take if possible.

It’s no great surprise that Herbie’s soundtrack won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1987, though the film’s original music arguably never quite evokes the high-energy rush of prime late-’50s bebop-tinged jazz. No matter: both ‘Round Midnight’ and its score have aged pretty damn well.