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This movie won an Oscar for Best Score.

'Round Midnight' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 24, 1986

It's the eleventh hour for a generation of jazzmen and "Round Midnight" sounds a requiem for be-bop. It's a simple-sounding word for a demanding discipline, notes Dexter Gordon, whose 40 years in the groove give credence to his role as a winded saxophonist in this eloquent ode by Bertrand Tavernier.

Gordon, a legendary be-bop king, is jammed into the frame. It's like he's sitting in a little kid's chair up there, with his knees to his chest and his sax cradled like a prized, brass-plated baby. The 63-year-old colossus shambles onstage, his voice a rasp of cigarette smoke and liquor. Yet he has the dignity of a venerable Shakespearean actor.

The ailing Gordon is making a new start with "Round Midnight," like the character he portrays -- saxophonist Dale Turner, a broken genius who comes to Paris in 1959 in hopes of making a comeback. Dale is a self-destructive booze hound, imprisoned by his managers, who only release him from his shabby hotel room to play. And does he ever play: clear, sweet standards and Herbie Hancock compositions written for the movie. Sweat runs into his reed, and by the second set, he's trying to sneak a drink from the piano player (Hancock himself).

Out in the street, a little Frenchman named Francis listens in the rain. He's there every evening to hear his idol improvise. Like the mailman obsessed with his "Diva," Francis is hypnotized by the vibes. His devotion pays off when a chance encounter brings the soulmates together. Francois Cluzet as Francis befriends and rehabilitates the saxophonist, harmonizing gracefully with Gordon's solid melodies.

Their inspirational friendship is based on the real-life bond between Francis Paudras and pianist Bud Powell, who was part of the black exodus that played Paris' Blue Note -- which was recreated exactly for the movie. The tale blurs truth and fiction, also using incidents from the lives of Lester Young and Gordon, who improvised the dialogue just as Tavernier improvised the shape of his scenes.

Tavernier also recorded the music live as the cameras rolled. Gordon jammed and Lonette McKee crooned; Billie Higgins drummed and Hancock smiled his handsome smile as if the ivories tickled him. The smoke is so thick, the blue light so sorrowful, the sound so true, you might as well have been there suffering the music too.

Like Mozart in "Amadeus," the jazzman is enslaved by his muse, burning too bright, up all night with the rythyms beating in his brain, his nerves vibrating like harp strings. But music is his life and his love. He is a sax maniac. "I'm tired of everything but the music," says Dale, who drinks to stop his be-bop dreams.

In recent films, French director Tavernier has been observing the artist in the twilight of his career. Here, the light and color of his "Sunday in the Country," a study of an old impressionist's later days, give way to the somber shadows of the jazz musician's nighttime world. It's an incredible show of flexibility on Tavernier's part, as improvisational and exploratory as the be-bop itself. "Round" is living sound, as "Sunday" was canvas come to life.

The story is written by David Rayfiel and Tavernier, and enhanced by the actors and musicians whose suggestions give it verisimilitude. Gordon goes the limit as Turner, dedicating his performance to all the cats who've gone before.

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