Round Midnight is one of Bertrand Tavernier’s best-known and most successful films—it did surprisingly well in the US, and Herbie Hancock’s score actually took home the Oscar for best score. It came after Tavernier gained a little bit of attention in the states due to Coup de Torchon and A Sunday in the Country, so he was able to get some interest from Warner Bros., which partially financed the film.
It’s very much Tavernier’s love letter to the jazz clubs he grew up going to in the ’50s and ’60s, and the expatriate African-American jazz musicians who were seen as superstars in Paris but couldn’t get the attention they deserved in the US. It’s the typical story of a self-destructive veteran jazz saxophone player Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) who is looking for a fresh start in Paris. He is a recovering heroin addict and serious boozer, and ends up striking a friendship with Francis Borler (François Cluzet). Borler, a young graphic designer specializing in movie posters, idolises the musician, and ends up looking after Dale and trying to keep him clean and sober.
The film is a pretty solid, if a little overly long. Tavernier could’ve shaved around 20 minutes, but he is so enamored with the scene around the Blue Note club in Paris that he gets a little indulgent in spots. It still has a lived-in quality. helped by the fact that Gordon was a real saxophonist who was an early influence on John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Tavernier, however, isn’t afraid to go expressionistic at times, with some of the street scenes clearly being sets and matte painted backgrounds on a Paris sound stage, which gives it a mild feel of a golden-age musical. The film is populated with cameos from various jazz musicians, and even Martin Scorsese pops up near the end as one of Dale’s US bookers in New York City, once Dale decides it’s time to head back to the States and Francis joins him.
Round Midnight is one of Tavernier’s very best films, and it’s nice to see it hot on the heels of Studiocanal’s “The Essential Tavernier” Blu-Ray boxset. Gordon gives a very compelling performance, and it has an extra poignancy because the soundtrack albums would end up being some of his very last recordings, as he died four years after the film came out. Despite its very simple story, Round Midnight goes in some very unconventional narrative directions. If you are a big jazz head, it’s a must, and even if you’re not, it’s still a very good film.
The Criterion release includes a nice array of extras, both new and archival. First up on the list of new extras are an interview with jazz critic Gary Giddins and a newly filmed conversation with music producer Michael Cuscuna and author Maxine Gordon, widow of Dexter Gordon. The archival extras are a making-of documentary from 1986, a panel discussion on the film from 2014 that includes Tavernier, and a live performance of “Fried Bananas” by Dexter Gordon. The essay in the leaflet is by scholar Mark Anthony Neal.