Essay on ‘Round Midnight

dexter-gordon-round-midnight

Director Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight is best described by one word: authentic. Despite depicting a fictional narrative, the story of ‘Round Midnight comprises pieces from the lives of prominent jazz artists who helped define the era of bebop (the film specifically lists Lester Young and Bud Powell during the end credits). Bits of real events sneak their way into the film, such as the main character, Dale’s, relationships with Darcey (a nod to the relationship between Billie Holiday and Lester Young) and Francis (a nod to the relationship between Francis Puadras and Bud Powell). Even the final scenes of the film (Francis making plans to return to Paris with Dale, only to return alone) are derived from real life events. The small truths buried within the narrative ground the film in reality and, for avid jazz enthusiasts, give the story meaningful depth: the film is not merely an idea of what it may have been like for an African-American jazz artist to travel to Paris and play music, it is exactly what did happen. ‘Round Midnight loosely tells viewers an important piece of jazz history through the format of film.

While the pseudo-biographical story of ‘Round Midnight may be what makes the film authentic, it is not what makes it feel authentic. This is an important distinction, as it is one thing for a film to tell a true story, and another thing entirely for the story to engage and immerse the audience in the truth it is telling. The occasionally subtle, but adamant, directorial decisions by Tavernier are what construct the authenticity of the film. His decision to cast professional saxophonist Dexter Gordon as the lead character Dale Turner exemplifies this. Gordon was a talented jazz musician who had known many of the people specifically referenced in the film (such as Dizzy Gillespe, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Bud Powell) and Gordon was an important artist within the bebop community himself. Additionally, his own life experiences were similar to the people he portrayed. Like Lester Young, Gordon had spent time in the army; like Bud Powell, Gordon at one point moved to Paris (the event in Bud Powell’s life that spurred the creation of the film itself).

Gordon’s performance was reflective of not only Young and Powell but of many jazz artists at the time. Substance abuse problems affected almost every big and small name in jazz, having incredibly detrimental effects on many players’ health and careers. In ‘Round Midnight, Dale’s struggle to overcome alcoholism with the help of Francis is the persistent conflict which drives the film’s narrative, and it is made clear to the audience how central the issue is to Dale’s life. We are presented with a musician – whom Francis at once point describes as “the greatest sax player” – who cannot be directly paid, as he is unable to stop himself from going to the bar and drinking himself into a hospital. He cannot live alone; in the film, we see Dale live with Buttercup at first, and then Francis, and this dependence is emphasized most at the end of the film, when Dale finally leaves Francis, and soon after passes away.

The turmoil of Dale’s living is made obvious by the back-and-forth narrative pattern chosen by Tavenier. Just as it was in the life of a jazz player, the film flips between the scenes of Dale’s failures at resisting alcohol to scenes of jazz, which somehow seem separate from the substance issues plaguing Dale’s life. The story line intelligently echoed the jazz music played on screen; it was unmethodical, with an almost improvisational sensation created by recurring montages of Paris narrated over by Dale’s random remarks to Francis. The interplay between story and music gave the film the feeling of a full narrative when, in reality, the plot was slim at best. But the mediating music the audience is given is most important of all to the creation of ‘Round Midnight’s authenticity, as the music of ‘Dale Turner’ which the audience hears is Dexter Gordon’s live playing.

In fact, all the music was every bit as sincere as Gordon’s. Other influential jazz musicians, such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, played on screen in the club scenes throughout the film, giving fantastic performances of many standard tunes (including the titular ‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk) with an emphasis on Dextor Gordon’s solos, which felt relaxed and poignant. Outside of the live performances, the soundtrack was new jazz material composed by Hancock specifically for the film, earning him an Academy Award for Best Original Score. ‘Round Midnight did not just give the audience a story about jazz, it gave the audience genuine jazz itself.

The pacing of the film was as relaxed as much of the music, with two notable exceptions: the beginning and ending, both of which took place in New York instead of Paris. The contrast was intentional, highlighting the differences between the two culturally important cities and giving an understanding of why Dale (and other American jazz musicians) would leave their home country to live in Europe.

About his own living in Europe, Dextor Gordon has said “For me, [the move to Europe] has been very good because my whole lifestyle is much calmer, much more relaxed. I can devote more time to music, and I think it is beginning to show. It’s not that everyday scuffle, and I’m able to concentrate more on studying.” This is certainly shown in the film, as in Paris, Dale is able to overcome his alcoholism, show up to his gigs consistently and on time, and is able to record. Upon his return to New York, he passes away.

The Parisian appreciation for jazz music is apparent; after arriving in Paris, Dale’s playing is heard and recognized by Francis, who is an avid jazz aficionado. And while bebop may have slowly been dying out in America, Dale has a full audience at almost every Paris club performance throughout the film. Part of this may have been due to America’s under-appreciation of jazz at the time. Paris, with an obviously less prominent African-American community, did not have the same access to live jazz music that Americans were privileged to possess. The appreciation for jazz in Paris also may have stemmed from less racism in Europe than in America. Despite the film’s time setting and a largely African-American cast, racism never was depicted on screen. If the film’s primary setting had been America, this undoubtedly would not have been the case; most likely, racism would have been one of the central themes of the film. Thus, the absence of racism is as telling as the inclusion of racism is within other films depicting such strong African-American culture.

Tavernier’s choices in ‘Round Midnight – the setting, the meandering narrative, the real jazz music – come together to accent the sincerity of the film as a tribute to not only two of the greatest jazz artists recognized in the genre’s history, but to all jazz artists who strove to overcome the parts of life which made their career difficult. Whether it was racism, health concerns, substance abuse, or any number of other issues, jazz players – such as the fictional Dale Turner – fought to do what they loved to do, and what those around them loved to hear: jazz music.

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