By Jake Lamar
I don't remember how I got into the screening at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1986. It must have been through an old acquaintance of mine, a freelance entertainment reporter who snagged a couple of tickets. As the lights went down at Lincoln Center, the music began and the film's title appeared on the screen, named after the classic Thelonious Monk composition. The rendition of "'Round Midnight" playing on the soundtrack gave me chills. Only during the closing credits two hours later would I learn that what I took to be a haunting trumpet was actually a human voice. I was 25 years old and this marked the first time I had heard Bobby McFerrin.
The first shot of the film is of Dexter Gordon, his back to the camera, pork pie hat atop his head. He is in silhouette, shot in black and white. Slowly, he turns around and full color seeps into the image. Dexter Gordon, like Dale Turner, the character he is playing onscreen, is a walking monument, one of the greatest saxophone players who has ever breathed. In the film it is 1959 and Dale Turner, his presence at once commanding and unsettling, is world-weary, unwell. "I'm tired of everything," he will say twice in the course of the film, "except music." This opening scene is in New York, jazz capital of the world. But Dale Turner is planning to catch a plane to Paris, the jazz capital of Europe. "No cold eyes in Paris," he says in a voice that is gravelly yet melodious.
"I was driven to make this film out of love and anger," the French director of 'Round Midnight, Bertrand Tavernier, explained in an interview in 1986. His love was for jazz, especially bebop. His anger came from the fact that "this music has never been treated well by Hollywood."
I don't claim to have seen every film about jazz there is but if there is a better non-documentary jazz film than 'Round Midnight, I haven't seen it. Tavernier's masterpiece turns 35 years of age in 2021. It is the Citizen Kane of jazz movies: audaciously ambitious, structurally intricate, visually arresting, cerebral yet ultimately heartbreaking, and biographically resonant, with an enigmatic, charismatic protagonist, portrayed by a genius.
Much of the film takes place in a meticulous recreation of Paris's Blue Note jazz club in 1959. A major element of what makes 'Round Midnight so sublime is that Dexter Gordon and his fellow artists are actually playing the music we hear. Maxine Gordon, Dexter's widow, covers the 'Round Midnight shoot in detail in her magnificent and indispensable biography Sophisticated Giant. "For the sake of authenticity," she writes, "Bertrand had decided that all the music in the film would be recorded live as the cameras rolled, and that they would never use the kind of playback system that is usually employed in filming musical scenes. This would be the first time that an entire score would be produced this way in a fictional feature film."
Hallucinant. It's a wonderful French adjective meant to convey that something you are witnessing is so unbelievable you feel like you're hallucinating. Watching the parade of jazz masters in 'Round Midnight is hallucinant. By my count, there are 16 performances in the film, most at the Blue Note, one at a house party, a couple in a scrupulously redesigned version of New York's Birdland. Dale Turner's/Dexter Gordon's band at the Blue Note features the great man himself on tenor until a number where he plays soprano sax. On piano, we have Herbie Hancock (who would go on to win an Oscar for composing the film's original score), Billy Higgins on drums, Pierre Michelot on bass and John McLaughlin on guitar. Bobby Hutcherson drops in to play the vibes. And, what do you know?...Wayne Shorter swings by for an after-hours jam session where he and Dexter engage in a thrilling match of dueling tenors.
On the Birdland set, Cedar Walton takes over on piano, Ron Carter plays the bass, Tony Williams is the drummer and trumpet virtuoso Freddie Hubbard joins the band. In a recording studio scene, there are two bassists (Carter and Mads Vinding), Palle Mikkelberg is on trumpet, Higgins is again on drums, Hancock is at the piano, and Wayne Shorter plays soprano sax. I remember watching that scene in 1986 and thinking: "This is a roomful of giants." Thirty- five years later, it feels more like watching a roomful of gods. With Dexter Gordon as Zeus.
Throughout the performances, Tavernier's camera moves with a languid grace, pulling in close, then tracking back, gliding around the set, sometimes stopping and staring intently, sometimes prowling about, catching glimpses, like an inquisitive, tender loving voyeur. "Filming the music live was a real challenge for the musicians, the crew, and myself," Herbie Hancock said. "We never really knew where we were going and there could be enormous differences between two takes. This made the shooting a deeply moving and stimulating adventure."
Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane is what might be called a non- identical twin to the real-life publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. In some ways, Kane resembles Hearst precisely but he is fundamentally a work of the imagination. So it is with Dexter Gordon's Dale Turner. Tavernier and his screenwriter David Rayfiel based their tortured hero on both the pianist Bud Powell and the saxophonist Lester Young. Like both men, Dale wrestles with addiction. Throughout most of the film, booze is Dale's poison of choice but it is strongly suggested that, in the end, a different substance is his nemesis.
Like Bud Powell, Dale Turner has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Like Powell, Turner moves to Paris in 1959. Powell had a wife, nicknamed Buttercup, who handled his finances and monitored his meds. Turner is looked after by a woman also named Buttercup, played by the fierce and fiery Sandra Reaves-Phillips, but she makes it clear that they are most definitely not a couple.
Like Lester Young, Dale Turner is drafted during World War II, then locked up in a military prison. In 'Round Midnight, white soldiers' blows to his head may have caused Dale neurological damage. Lester Young and Billie Holiday had a complicated, artistically glorious but emotionally charged partnership. Dale Turner seems to have a similar history with Darcey Leigh, played by an absolutely radiant Lonette McKee. Their rendition of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" is at once exquisite and shattering. Lester Young's last performance was at the Blue Note in Paris in 1959. He returned to New York and promptly died.
Simply from attending Dexter Gordon's jazz performances, Bertrand Tavernier had a hunch the musician would have the acting chops to play Dale Turner. By the 1980s, Gordon was a figure of historic magnitude. The length and breadth of his career in music were comparable to Pablo Picasso's in art. When Picasso started out, Cézanne and Monet were still painting. At the end of his life, Picasso was working at the same time as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg and had outlived Jackson Pollock by nearly 20 years.
Dexter Gordon started out at the age of 17, in 1940, at the top of the jazz world, when he was recruited by the Lionel Hampton Band. In 1944, he moved on to the Louis Armstrong Orchestra, the pinnacle of jazz at its most popular. He quit Armstrong's crew after six months to join Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey in Billy Eckstine's band, the genius-packed laboratory of the new style known as bebop. Dexter would influence John Coltrane but outlive Trane by more than 20 years and in 'Round Midnight, he would play with Herbie Hancock, who was born the year he joined Lionel Hampton's band. Dexter Gordon's career is mind- boggling in its epic grandeur.
According to Maxine Gordon's biography, Dexter insisted on having input on the screenplay for 'Round Midnight. He cringed at the dialogue in the first draft by Tavernier and Rayfiel, which was heavy with clichéd Hollywood Ebonics. He let his collaborators know that "beboppers were very urbane and sophisticated." Once shooting began on a soundstage outside Paris, the other musicians started suggesting changes to the script.
Maxine Gordon recounts: "One of the remarkable things about 'Round Midnight is how much improvisation went into the development of the characters and the story line. Bertrand was able to see that the original idea and original script were taking on a life of their own, and that this life was being driven by the way real musicians think and live."
Maxine explains one of the hero's more curious quirks, his frequent use of a particular honorific: "In the film, Dale refers to several of the male characters as 'Lady.' This is a reference to Lester Young, who famously gave Billie Holiday the nickname 'Lady Day' and often honored both male and female friends with the affectionate term of 'Lady.'"
"Bromance" was not a word in 1986 but it might be the best term to describe the relationship at the center of 'Round Midnight, the one between Dale Turner and his ardent French fan Francis Borier, played by François Cluzet. It's based on the real-life friendship between Bud Powell and Francis Paudras. We first see the movie version of Francis squatting on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, bending his ear toward the ventilation grate of the Blue Note, listening to his idol Dale Turner. Francis, a struggling graphic designer and veteran of the bloody French-Algerian war, is too broke to afford a ticket to get inside.
Francis is down on his luck in many ways. His wife has left him for another guy, abandoning both Francis and their nine-year-old daughter Bérangère. When Dale lumbers outside of the club between sets, he spots Francis and asks if he could buy him a beer. Buttercup and Dale's other minders won't allow the hardcore alcoholic to drink. The broke Frenchman has just enough change on him to treat Dale at the café across the street from the Blue Note. "You know, I know you," Francis tells Dale right away. "I mean your music, your composition, every recording. You, Bird, Bud Powell, Lester Young. You have revolutionized the music." Later, Francis will tell Dale: "Your music changed my life."
In 1986, François Cluzet, who would go on to become one of France's most admired film actors, had the face of a Frenchified Dustin Hoffman and moved with a springy, Chaplinesque grace. His performance is one of the most affectionate portraits of fandom in cinema. "I wanted to bring together two wounded souls," Tavernier explained, "battered by life, who, through this contact, mutually help each other."
Dale eventually quits the Hotel La Louisiane (a favorite spot for Black American jazz artists) and moves in with Francis and Bérangère. They form an odd little family. Dale inspires Francis, who begins to have success designing movie posters. Under the sweet care of the Frenchman and his daughter, Dale sobers up, starts to compose again, trades his pork pie hat for a beret.
But for various reasons, the Paris reverie cannot last. When Dale says abruptly, "Lady Francis, I think it's about time for me to go home," the Frenchman looks like he'll burst into tears. He accompanies Dale to New York, where they are greeted by a character named Goodley, based on Oscar Goodstein, manager of the Birdland club, and played by Martin Scorsese in a bravura cameo performance. In his manic patter, Scorsese/Goodley tells Francis the difference between the two great jazz capitals: "Paris is a beautiful place. It's got fancy bridges. But I prefer New York. New York for me, the music is better. Because it's tougher. There's tougher things going on here. That's because there's tougher people here. It's not for everybody, New York." It's definitely not for Francis, who wants to get Dale back to Paris. He books a flight for the two of them. But Dale stands him up at the airport and Francis returns alone to Bérangère.
'Round Midnight was acclaimed around the world. And Dexter Gordon, as Scorsese predicted during the shoot, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. Unfortunately, he lost to Paul Newman for reprising his Fast Eddie Felson character from The Hustler in Scorsese's pool hall drama The Color of Money. All the same, Dexter and Maxine had a blast at the ceremony.
The jazz master inhabited his onscreen character so completely that, like many viewers, I imagined Dexter Gordon was probably very much like Dale Turner, often taciturn and strangely detached. But, in fact, the real Dexter was jovial, witty and charming. And the ultimate survivor. After spending the 1950s in and out of California prisons for heroin possession, he conquered his addiction and found fulfillment while living in Europe for 14 years and finally received the widespread recognition he deserved when he returned to live in the USA and Mexico during the last decade and a half of his life. In 1990, four years after the release of 'Round Midnight, Dexter Gordon died of kidney failure at the age of 67.
"The film became an important event for Dexter and for all jazz musicians," Maxine Gordon writes in the biography. "'My life has a happy ending,' he often said, always certain of the statement's future truth."
About Jake Lamar: http://www.jakelamar.com/