Film review

Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight’ (1986/ Criterion Blu-Ray)

Round Midnight directed by Bertrand Tavernier, 1986
(The Criterion Collection 2022. Blu-ray review by Jane Mann)

At last, Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight is re-released today (9 May 2022) on Blu-ray by Criterion. The film, originally made in 1986, is master film director Tavernier’s impressionistic love letter to the Black American bebop musicians who, escaping the appalling race laws in the USA, took refuge in the many jazz clubs of Paris in the 1950s. It comes with a newly restored digital soundtrack and lots of extras: new subtitles, some interviews and rare performance footage on the disc, and an interesting essay in the accompanying booklet (full list of extras below)

Round Midnight is a glimpse of the life of fictional American musician Dale Turner (played with great dignity and reflectiveness by legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon) who goes to Paris in 1959 suffering from various addictions and ailments – he is making a new start after losing a close friend to addiction in New York. He strikes up a friendship with Parisian jazz enthusiast Francis (François Cluzet) who helps him get back on his feet, and into the recording studio again. We first see Francis crouching in the pouring rain outside the jazz club where Dale is playing, too poor to pay to get in, but clearly loving what he can hear through an air vent onto the street.

The story is loosely based on the true tale of the relationship between commercial artist Francis Paudras and pianist/composer Bud Powell whom Paudras met on Powell’s arrival in Paris, alcoholic and unwell, in the early sixties. Paudras published his memoir of those times in La Danse des Infidèles in 1986. Gordon bases his character Dale Turner on an amalgam of (his contemporary) Bud Powell and of Lester Young, who allegedly drank himself to death in Paris in 1959 aged just 49.

This film is beautifully made and structured. The sets are by Alexandre Trauner, another master of his craft who designed for many classic French and American films including Quai des Brumes, Les Enfants du Paradis, The Apartment, The Man Who Would Be King and Luc Besson’s Subway. His street sets are particularly brilliant – evocative of both Paris, and, in the colour palette and lighting, of films of that time. The camerawork is fluid and the direction is wonderful. As Maxine Gordon, Gordon’s widow, recalls, “One of the remarkable things about ’Round Midnight is how much improvisation went into the development of the characters and the story line.” The acting is understated and realistic, and the pace is gentle and elegiac.

The music is of course the backbone of the whole enterprise. Tavernier wrote in the liner notes to the CD of the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: “For many years I had been struggling to make a totally free, genuine, and uncompromising film that would testify to my passionate love for jazz, especially bebop.”

The soundtrack is composed, arranged and conducted by a very youthful looking Herbie Hancock. Tavernier and Hancock had decided not to try and replicate the music of the fifties, but to take a looser approach to musical style. Hancock and Gordon chose most of the musicians, except for bassist Pierre Michelot who was suggested by Tavernier himself because he had played with Bud Powell and Miles Davis.

The musical performances are extraordinary, in that they were all filmed and recorded directly, so what you are hearing is being played live. It sounds and looks authentic because it is. An added thrill for the jazz fan is recognising the various eminent musicians who pop up. The rhythm section in the main has Billy Higgins, who played drums with Gordon for years – and Pierre Michelot, as mentioned above. Some musicians have speaking roles alongside Gordon and acquit themselves very well: there’s Herbie Hancock (as Eddie Wayne – bandleader), Bobby Hutcherson, the great vibes player as Ace (each time he appears at his door he has a pan of food in his hands), Lonette McKee (as Darcy Leigh – Turner’s former lover). Gordon, who stands at almost two metres tall, a literal towering presence, is rarely off the screen, and is as at ease as if he has acted all his life.

Gordon’s playing is beautiful, doing that familiar thing of taking well-known melodies and making them sound fresh and new – including the title track ‘Round Midnight, Body and Soul, How Long Has This Been Going On, and a very lively Rhythm-a-ning. Hancock contributes three new compositions, including one very pretty ballad co-written with Stevie Wonder, Chan’s Song (Never Said), for which Hancock wrote several arrangements. He won an Oscar for Best Original Score, quite rightly.

There are performances from Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Palle Mikkelborg, John McLaughlin, Cedar Walton, Lonette McKee and, off screen, from Chet Baker and Bobby McFerrin.

There are also guest appearances from a couple of well-known French stars, and a cameo from Martin Scorsese.

I loved this film when I first saw it at the cinema in 1986, and I am happy to report that it stands the test of time. It would be lovely to go and see it on a big screen again, preferably at the Rex in Paris, or an outdoor screening at some summer festival, but until that is possible, buy this splendid new Blu-ray, or persuade your local library to purchase a copy, and watch it at home. You are in for a real treat.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack
  • Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, supervised by composer Herbie Hancock and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio
  • New interview with jazz critic Gary Giddins
  • New conversation with music producer Michael Cuscuna and author Maxine Gordon, widow of musician Dexter Gordon
  • Behind-the-scenes documentary from 19TK[ck]
  • Panel discussion from 2014 featuring director Bertrand Tavernier, Cuscuna, Maxine Gordon, and jazz scholar John Szwed, moderated by jazz critic and broadcaster Mark Ruffin
  • Performance from 1969 of “Fried Bananas” by Dexter Gordon, directed by Teit Jørgensen[ck]
  • Excerpt from the 1996 documentary Dexter Gordon: More Than You Know, by Don McGlynn[ck]
  • New English subtitle translation and English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 
  • Essay by Mark Anton Neal about Round Midnight

(The CD Original Motion Picture Soundtrack “Round Midnight” Herbie Hancock/Dexter Gordon CDCBS 70300 is also still available for order)

2 replies »

  1. I remember driving into Lyon I saw a poster with Tony Williams (my favourite drummer) as top billing. I drove round a couple of times to see the full details. The concert was just a couple of hours away and a block from our accommodation

    We got front row seats and were given candles. The management apologised that we’d have to see the first song performed twice for the film footage and then we were off….

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