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  'Round Midnight Outsider Art
Year: 1986
Director: Bertrand Tavernier
Stars: Dexter Gordon, Francois Cluzet, Gabrielle Haker, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Lonette McKee, Christine Pascal, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Pierre Trabaud, Frederique Meininger, Hart Leory Bibbs, Martin Scorsese, Philippe Noiret, Alain Sarde
Genre: Drama, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) moved from New York to Paris to get away from his troubles, but since his troubles include addiction issues, which he still suffers, they may not be that easy to dismiss. He has work in a dingy jazz club where he plays the saxophone to much respect from the patrons, but he hasn't recorded anything in years, and it could be said he is squandering his talents. Certainly, Francis Borier (Francois Cluzet) thinks so, not that this prevents him sitting outside the club - he cannot afford the entry fee - and taking in Dale's sounds. He doesn't know it yet, but his hero worship could go places...

French director Bertrand Tavernier was a huge jazz fan, so making a movie on the subject seemed an obvious choice. Taking bits and pieces of real-life jazz stories, he fashioned a meandering, music-heavy yarn detailing the last few months of the fictional Turner, all the while nodding to the actual life stories he was influenced by: if you were a big fan of the form, you would likely be recognising various elements that made up the patchwork of the project. That could have prevented the film from really breathing as its own entity, and perhaps to a certain extent it did, but it did feature the important tone of authenticity.

If you were being reductive, this was a tale of a white guy rescuing a black guy (for a while) which some may find problematic, and in truth the lack of humour in Cluzet's performance did make him a bit of a bore to be around. Then again, if he had not been so straight-faced in his dedication to Dale, the central conceit might not have succeeded, that conceit being Dale's genius was going unacknowledged by playing to about thirty people a night. Whatever you thought about Gordon's playing, and some are bigger fans than others, he struck a compelling figure, an enigma seemingly on the very cusp of life and death.

Get a drink in Dale and he can still play, but don't expect any decent conversation, and the heroin is even worse for his system. Gordon was no actor, but you can understand why he was Oscar-nominated in the Best Actor category, and it was not merely because he was putting in those easy on the ear musical readings of various jazz favourites (Herbie Hancock, who appears, was in charge of the music production). Gordon is a weirdly ethereal presence, he had been through his own addiction problems earlier in his career, and that fed into his interpretation surprisingly effectively: he was not playing himself, exactly, but he was able to act around the character in a way he would improvise his jazz.

Francis, once he has his foot in the door, takes it upon himself to get Dale clean and back being productive, which includes welcoming him into his home which he shares with his young daughter. Soon he is commandeering Turner's whole career, and more, ensuring the ageing, and frankly a little frail, musician gets back into the recording studio and lays down a new album. Then there's the trip back to New York City where Martin Scorsese plays a fast-talking, slicker than slick manager who arranges a big set of gigs there, an inspired bit of casting that rouses the movie for a while. While there, parallels between Francis' parental relationship and Dale's with his teenage daughter are drawn, accepting that Dale will never build a bond and Francis should heed that warning. But more ominously, the jazz man's old heroin dealer looms once again in his life, which leads us into the final act, if such a loose structure could be said to have acts. Of most interest to jazz fans, but even the agnostics will find worth here.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:

New 4K digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio
New interview with jazz and cultural critic Gary Giddins
New conversation with music producer Michael Cuscuna and author Maxine Gordon, widow of musician Dexter Gordon
Before Midnight, a 1986 behind-the-scenes documentary by Jean Achache
Panel discussion from 2014 featuring Cuscuna, Maxine Gordon, director Bertrand Tavernier, and jazz scholar John Szwed, moderated by jazz critic and broadcaster Mark Ruffin
Performance from 1969 of "Fried Bananas" by Dexter Gordon, directed by Teit Jørgensen
New English subtitle translation and English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by scholar Mark Anthony Neal.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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