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This movie won an Oscar for Best Score.

‘Round Midnight’ (R)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 24, 1986

In the midst of a film culture dominated by violence comes Bertrand Tavernier's "Round Midnight," a lovingly gentle yet vibrant tribute to jazz, friendship and film itself, made by a director of consummate taste and precise imagination. "Round Midnight" is sentimental, but it's never vague, or gauzy, or anything but what it should be -- a movie that sees sentiment as something that is hard-won.

As artfully scripted by David Rayfiel (along with Tavernier), the story is based on the friendship of jazz great Bud Powell and amateur pianist Francis Paudras. The time is 1959, and jazz is dying, quite literally -- "Round Midnight" begins at the seedy deathbed of a jazz pianist named Hershell as he scolds saxophonist Dale Turner (another jazz great, Dexter Gordon) for playing experimental music no one wants to hear. Dale tells him of his plans to live in Paris.

What Dale finds in Paris, though, is simply the same old Dale -- his addiction to alcohol lands him in the hospital time and again, despite the baby-sitting of the bullying Buttercup (Sandra Reaves-Phillips), who takes his wages and locks him in his room.

As Dale plays in a nightclub called the Blue Note, a young Parisian, Francis Borier (Francois Cluzet), a struggling commercial artist, listens by the vent outside, squatting in the rain. Dale is a hero to a young man quite given to heroes; Francis approaches him on the street one night, buys him a beer, and thus is born a friendship that transforms both of their lives.

"Round Midnight" admixes the two great American art forms, jazz and film, through the clarifying heat of the French sensibility, that wild enthusiasm for popular American art, and, paradoxically, a revulsion for the America that abandoned its own. The dominant mood of the movie is lyrical, as Tavernier's camera glides and swirls around the musicians, giddy with the romance of the night, in the smoky, sepulchral light of the clubs, the blue-and-brown dinginess of anonymous hotel rooms.

Tavernier is close to his characters, but there's an alley of ironic distance in "Round Midnight," and you see it in the movie's comedy. Cluzet is all nose, and Francis is all nosiness, jumpy with nerves, hounding Dale with his legend; Dale suffers him with seigneurial aplomb, cadging money for booze in exchange for rambling, impenetrable pense'es on the nature of art and the universe. And as they interact, with Dale addressing "Lady Frohn-seece" and elaborately adopting French courtliness, "Round Midnight" reminds you of Huck and the Duke and Dauphin in "Huckleberry Finn."

Together, they're even a kind of visual joke, Mutt and Jeff: little Cluzet, buzzing around frantically, a terrier on the scent of inspiration, and Gordon, a disheveled, big-bellied giant with the gait of a felled redwood; Cluzet with his face of thin, rapid lines, Gordon with his thick, rounded, doughy head.

Gordon is no actor, but he was an inspired choice as Dale, because he inhabits the role as no actor could. He delivers his lines in a horrendous rasp that any actor could imitate, or that you could find, for that matter, in the average soldier of the Salvation Army; but the rhythm of the delivery no one could imitate, the orchestration of the pauses, the delays, the legato phrasing -- here's a man so far into the music that he talks be-bop. And who gestures in be-bop, too, for the hulking saxophonist has hands of an almost impossible delicacy, lacework hands, that tremble and flutter and float with fine-tuned thought -- hands that, again, no actor could mimic.

"Round Midnight" has the unmistakable texture of daily experience, built not only out of the battered accuracy of the sets, but from the supporting cast, which includes a number of contemporary jazz artists (most notably, Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard), and a hilariously apt cameo by director Martin Scorsese, as the corrupt New York club owner who smilingly robs Dale blind. But what most contributes to the movie's realism is the way Tavernier gives you the time to dwell on moments, without the pell-mell drive, the rush to connect the narrative dots, which mar most contemporary movies.

Just as unmistakably, "Round Midnight" is a piece of nostalgia, but in a complex way -- it's not seen with the dewy eyes of the present, but from the vantage of a past alive with memory, the point of view of characters who are aware they are creating history. For Dale is, above all, an artist, who can tell a doctor, "My life is music, my love is music, and it's 24 hours a day"; and "Round Midnight" is, above all, a movie about that music as Gordon and his associates whip through an extensive repertoire.

While much of that music is remarkable, much isn't. Tavernier portrays art, not like a librarian, who sees it as something permanent, but as a quest, always personal, and often personally ruinous; and he does it with a cinematic style that is always reaching for something ungraspable, and that somehow matches the music. When "Round Midnight" tells you explicitly what it means to be an artist, it tells you nothing. The message, instead, is built into the movie itself. Tavernier has created an extraordinary portrait of an artist quite simply because he's so intimate with it -- because he's such an extraordinary artist himself.

"Round Midnight" is rated R and contains profanity and sexual themes.

Copyright The Washington Post

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