It’s hard to determine why jazz has become such an often ignored and underappreciated musical form when it’s had so much influence on modern and contemporary music.
The simplest reason is that jazz lacks the conventional excitement and glamour that surrounds other musical forms, namely rock & roll and now hip-hop. Although one can’t argue that jazz is old-fashioned, producing the same image of grandparents dancing and having fun that would make any kid cringe. It might’ve been cool then, but it sure isn’t cool now.
This disconnect is unfortunate because no other artform better captures the moment like jazz music. No performance is ever the same, from a subtle shift in tone to a more dramatic key change. Even the musician’s mood and very thoughts could alter the song’s very essence.
The Bertrand Tavernier-directed Round Midnight captures that simple truth, amplified tenfold by all of the artist’s unique features and imperfections. Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) exemplifies the latter as a universally acclaimed yet troubled tenor playing alongside other expatriates, helping to create and shape the bebop style, in postwar Paris.
Francis Borier (François Cluzet) approaches Turner after a long show. Despite Borier’s repeated praise for the musician, it takes a few rounds before the friendship really blossoms. The immediate attraction is their love for jazz, but as the movie progresses their true commonality is exposed. Turner and Borier are deeply flawed men. One is an absolute alcoholic. The other is a neglectful father.
While Turner’s life seems tragic, Borier’s life is truly painful. In the end, Turner’s addiction affects mostly himself, with almost every friend and associate resigned to letting the genius fade away. Borier is determined to not let his hero’s life end that way, even focusing his attention away from his daughter Berangere (Gabrielle Haker) to help Turner. While Borier means well for everyone, his troubles of raising the daughter that his wife wanted no part of are apparent.
Turner’s life is not a rollercoaster. It’s a continual uphill climb with many stops for breath, yet very few brief pauses to enjoy the scenery. In a subdued triumph, Turner’s life finally takes a positive turn after moving in with Borier and his daughter and after making a conscious effort to quit drinking. Sobriety allows him to finally produce his long-awaited record, which was probably more Borier’s dream than Turner’s.
The Dale Turner character is based on the lives of real-life jazz musicians Bud Powell and Lester Young, and it must be noted that many jazz musicians’ lives and/or careers have been cut short by alcohol and drugs. I can’t hazard a guess why, but it is nonetheless heartbreaking to experience their greatness and not wonder what could have been.
Round Midnight features cameo roles for Martin Scorsese (Goodley) and Herbie Hancock (Eddie Wayne) — who also scored the film — as well as many famous jazz musicians. The film and jazz music are perfectly summed up with a line by Wayne after witnessing Turner get helped to his room after another drunken night: “Even the most beautiful things can be the most painful.”
The DVD’s special features include bibliographies of the cast & crew, a brief mention of the film’s awards (a 1986 Academy Award for Best Score forHancock), and the film’s theatrical trailer.