It's Paris, 1959, and aged American jazzman Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) is "dying of everything, except music." Turner is a soulful genius of the tenor sax, but he's far less capable of coaxing beauty from the rest of his life. He is (rather, was) one of the greats, a pioneer who can trace a long history playing with Ellington and Basie and Parker. He's also addicted to booze and drugs, and inching his way toward a lonely death in a one-room tenement. Turner can barely manage to make his gigs playing with a combo in a smoky nightclub. But when he's on that stage, we hear everything he needs to say in the sublime sounds blowing from somewhere deep inside him. "Happiness is a nice, wet Rico reed," he says, and that's good because his music is the only happiness he's managed to hold on to. That is, until he asks a young Parisian fan who's so broke he can't get into the club and so listens to Turner through a window in the rain to buy him a beer. The young man, Francis (Francois Cluzet), moves from being Turner's awestruck admirer to becoming his caretaker. As Francis comes to see Turner's darker side and the toll it's taking, both men are transformed, Turner toward improved health and personal responsibility, Francis toward his own creative inspiration and accountability.
And that's what 1986's Round Midnight is ultimately about the power of personal connections through music, surrender, kindness, and inspiration. That's not to say that Round Midnight is just a feel-good romp through descent and redemption. It's more somberly realistic than that. It's a brooding yet warm elegy, as plaintive as a slow, low-toned ballad in a minor key. Lovingly written and directed by Bertrand Tavernier, Round Midnight evokes a dark, soft-edged ambiance that never feels anything less than authentic, thanks in large part to real-life jazz legend Gordon's performance as Turner. Sixty-three years old, Gordon's own experiences as an expatriate musician informed his performance, which earned him an Oscar nomination. Given that Gordon was a professional musician, not an actor, this may be one of the more impressive starring turns of the '80s. His slow smoke-and-whiskey voice is as musically appropriate to Round Midnight as his graceful saxophone.
To deepen the realism further, Tavernier had all jazz musician roles played by real jazz musicians, such as Herbie Hancock (who won the Oscar for Best Score). Every combo performance was recorded on the spot, and hearing them you know that they're the real deal. One of the script's virtues is its lack of superfluous dialogue. Round Midnight is less talky than most movies we're used to, and every line counts in a story where music does so much of the speaking.
* * *
Sound is very important in Round Midnight, and the new Warner Brothers DVD takes its sound very seriously. With a remastered Dolby 5.1 soundtrack supervised by Hancock, the audio is powerful and flawless. The picture is similarly pristine and displayed in 2.35:1 (anamorphic) widescreen. Round Midnight is a welcome addition to Warner's jazz-related releases, and it's a fitting companion to Warner's DVD edition of Bird.
Trivia: look for Martin Scorsese in a small role near the end.
English, French, Spanish, and Portugese subtitles, cast/director film highlights, theatrical trailer. Snap-case.