Director Bertrand Tavernier’s greatest inspiration in making “Round Midnight” was casting Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner, an American sax man riffing through the highs and lows of be-bop in Paris during the ‘50s.
Gordon, as jazz fans know, was one of jazz’s top saxophonists, a lyrical breeze of a musician who first made his reputation with Billy Eckstine’s band in the ‘40s. He also faced the cruelties of jazz--like the character he embodies in Tavernier’s 1985 movie, Gordon was a little too familiar with booze and drugs.
In fact, Tavernier said in an interview that Gordon was frequently in trouble during the shooting of “Round Midnight” (screening at Golden West College today as the final feature in a free, weeklong series of jazz films).
He drank often and a lot, the director said, but it gave the movie authenticity and a rough spontaneity. Gordon’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination as best actor.
Besides, Tavernier pointed out that Gordon (who died in 1990 of kidney failure) began his own alcoholism recovery during the project, as Dale Turner does in the film.
When we see Dale play his sax, he’s the artist resting sublimely in a huge, comfortable body. He looks on top of the world, as if nothing could knock him down. But when he’s offstage, cadging drinks or otherwise trying to get by, Dale seems like a crumbling ruin.
He has dignity, but it comes from knowing himself and how bad life can be. You get the feeling that Gordon is replaying his own history, that Dale is just a stand-in for him, and that gives “Round Midnight” conviction. Because of that kind of honesty, this may be the best jazz movie ever made.
Even the title is properly grounded. Taken from an old Thelonious Monk composition, “Round Midnight,” with a screenplay by Tavernier and David Rayfield, is based on the true-life relationship between late pianist Bud Powell and Francis Poudras, a young French jazz fan who tried to change Powell’s self-destructive ways.
In Tavernier’s version, Dale meets Francis (Francois Cluzet) after a session one night. Francis has been listening outside the nightclub because he doesn’t have enough money for a ticket. When Dale walks by, Francis impetuously tells him that his music changed his life. Dale lets himself be taken in by Francis, who commits to him completely.
“Round Midnight” lacks the usual storytelling thrust of many movies. Despite the compelling plot, the narrative glides along a muted path, not unlike a good jazz number that takes delicately unexpected turns. Watching Dale and Francis grow close is a subdued experience that evolves in quiet ways.
Tavernier cleverly avoids any heaviness, even when Dale stumbles during his rehabilitation. Whenever a maudlin threat rises, the film moves back to the nightclub where Dale plays. There’s no forced sentimentality on stage, just Gordon and his music, with nothing getting in the way.
* Bertrand Tavernier’s “Round Midnight” screens today at 3 p.m. at Golden West College’s Forum II theater, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach. Free. (714) 895-8772.