23 March 2015 | secondtake
Great Hancock jazz, an excellent Gordon acting, and a painfully outsider French script
'Round Midnight (1986)
If you love jazz, and especially if you love bebop and the 1940s and 50s music carried on by the real Dexter Gordon (who stars here), you ought to like this movie a lot. Or at least like and love the music.
And the music is great, with Herbie Hancock taking the Oscar that year for original score. Gordon is excellent, too, playing the fictional character, Dale Turner, not so different from his real life, as Gordon lived in Paris for years because the jazz scene was still alive there for him. The movie is based on a book loosely based on two earlier jazzmen, however: the great and troubled Bud Powell who played piano and of course the legendary Lester Young who played, like Dale Turner, the tenor sax.
And so do I, sort of. I love this stuff, the music and even the lore a bit, the individuals that make up that fifty years or so of classic jazz.
But the music is not entirely the movie. As a plot, a series of meaningful events and conversations, this is meandering (which can be wonderful in a better film) and sometimes poorly acted and poorly written. It's full of stupid clichés, frankly. And in fact it seems like what it probably is: an outsider's rosy-eyed vision of the American jazz scene as it was transplanted in Paris. It's filled with inevitable smoky rooms, quirky characters, tough but marginalized woman, alcoholic men, and dark nights. I'm sure that's accurate in the outline, but it comes off as naive and pre-packaged. Add the final element, that the music is played for a bunch of White Europeans who really love it but don't actually get it (sorry to say) the way it was "gotten" here in America, or was back in the day. It all rings false. Increasingly.
I'd love to know what other insider jazz people think of this portrayal. Watching the Ken Burns documentary of jazz series with all the clips and comments gives another kind of false view, aggrandizing as it is, but is has all the elements of truth built in to know something of the honesty and difficulty of the scene in the States. Director and writer Bertrand Tavernier is trying something noble, and probably coming from a love of jazz, but it's almost unwatchable as a movie.
In fact, it's almost insulting with all the clichés—the troubled French man who loves it all in a wide-eyed way and is supposed to show a rare empathy for the poor unappreciated Americans at the top. And that's the core of the movie. He says, more than once in different ways, "Your music changed my life." Yeah, yeah, of course! That's still not going to fill two hours on the screen.
Take these comments with some salt—the movie got lots of nominations for awards. And Dexter Gordon is terrific in his acting (if not always his somewhat stiff playing), which is a kind of revelation. And it might be enjoyable for the lack of glitz here, for all the quiet (a.k.a. boring for some) conversations. You'll get the feel in the first twenty minutes.
And love the music. That's a good full half of this troubled movie.