Jazz Odyssey: Round Midnight

This 1986 drama stars saxophone giant Dexter Gordon as a drug-addled saxophonist in 1950s Paris.

Named after a Thelonious Monk composition, based on the life of Bud Powell and featuring everyone from Herbie Hancock to Freddie Hubbard, Round Midnight is undoubtedly the jazziest movie ever made. Herbie’s plate is fully loaded, since he not only performs but also composes, arranges and conducts the Oscar-winning original score. Gordon was also nominated for Best Actor, a triumph in itself considering he isn’t an actor. But like Eminem in 8 Mile, his ability to draw from his own life and his love for the subject (his character is a composite of Powell and Lester Young) produces an assured, idiosyncratic performance.

Our man in Paris talks with his hands both when speaking and playing, his eyes sad with mortality and his voice like slurred gravel. “I’m tired of everything except music” is his refrain, made all the more poignant by Gordon’s own death 4 years later. But in a Parisian alleyway he meets a younger fan (François Cluzet) and the two become firm friends. What follows is a poetic, soulful ode to the transcendent language of jazz and to the city itself (“No cold eyes in Paris”), which became a refuge for a number of great jazz musicians including Powell who moved there for the sake of his mental health following racist violence at the hands of Philadelphia police.

Long Tall Dexter blows hot and cool throughout in dextrous displays of his wide signature sound, the immaculate music captured live by Bertrand Tavernier with performances (both musical and theatrical) from Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin and Bobby Hutcherson in a dressing gown. Martin Scorsese also shows up in a New York sequence, a city he describes as “tougher” than Paris. This toughness is written all over Clint Eastwood’s Bird, another portrait of a jazz musician struggling with drug addiction (and a character called Chan). But where Bird is all furious American melodrama, Round Midnight is painterly and European in its approach.

We leave Round Midnight understanding its subject more than we do in Bird, easier to pull off with a fictional character. And when he laments “There’s not enough kindness in the world,” the picture fills the void with beauty.

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