Tuesday, January 5, 2010

DVD Pick: 'Round Midnight

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2010 at 4:53 PM

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By Brian Daye

For hardcore jazz music purists, film has had an interesting partnership and relationship with the idiom in terms of two powerful forces trying to strike a balance in creating a single narrative while simultaneously having the ability to communicate equally well. Films like St. Louis Blues and Paris Blues come to mind. Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues brings the active life of a jazz musician to vibrant focus, yet one film truly stands out: Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight. The title is taken from the Thelonious Monk classic.

This 1986 film stars jazz legend Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner, a New York jazz saxophonist who leaves NYC and travels to Paris in 1959 to get away from his troubles. He becomes washed up and meanders through an alcohol-soaked existence. Missing date after date, his life gravitates more toward gutters than to jazz clubs. Sandra Reaves-Phillips plays Buttercup, a quasi has-been jazz singer who barks and yells at Dale even while helping him stagger to his room in a flop house nightly. For the dates he does make, he never sees any money because it goes straight to the liquor store.

Francis Borler (played by Francois Cluzet) is an unabashed Dale Turner devotee. He more than acknowledges that Turner's music changed his life. Francis soon decides to take in Dale to live with him and his young daughter — to the chagrin of Buttercup. One night, Francis can't find Dale after furiously combing the streets of Paris looking for him. He ultimately learns via the local police that Dale has been taken to yet another hospital to dry out. Once Francis finds Dale, he accidentally hears a conversation between Dale and the hospital psychiatrist. Dale has an epiphany when he tells the doctor that his very life constantly revolves around music. Once Francis hears this, his understanding of Dale becomes concretized.

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After Dale moves in with Francis, he promises that he will stop drinking — and he does! It is here where Dexter Gordon truly shines and the film goes in a beautiful direction. Dale slowly starts to take his life back. He begins getting paid for gigs again, starts to record music again, and is reunited with the love of his life, the jazz singer Darcey Leigh (beautifully played by Lonette McKee).

Near the end of the film, Dale decides to return home to New York, which stuns Francis. Greeting them both when they arrive is none other than Martin Scorsese, who plays Dale's manager Goodley. The film takes a sad yet expected turn at the very end, one that is reflective of how a lot of jazz musicians' lives ended up.

Dexter Gordon was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and it's easy to see why. The movie earned Herbie Hancock (who also appears in the film) an Oscar for Best Original Score. 'Round Midnight is a beautifully crafted experience of a life that shouldn't be missed. Check it out.

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