Near the beginning of ``Round Midnight,'' jazz musician Dexter Gordon takes the stage of a small nightclub, brings his saxophone to his lips, and blows some of the most amazing notes I've heard in any film. The melody is slow and sweet, but the tone is tough and unadorned. It's a typical Gordon sound, with an air of mingled sadness and beauty that perfectly suits the picture's atmosphere. Although it's not directly a biographical film, ``Round Midnight'' has deep roots in jazz history and especially in the life of Bud Powell, the greatest piano player of the bebop era. The filmmakers acknowledge that their story was ``inspired by'' experiences of Powell and Francis Paudras, a French jazz aficionado who befriended and supported him. They have also dedicated the movie to Powell and sax star Lester Young, two men whose talents and personalities seem conjoined in the picture's main character, played by Gordon in one of the year's most stunning performances.
The film begins disjointedly, with oddly spliced-together views of the 1950s New York jazz scene. This isn't the most inviting way to start a movie, and some viewers may lose patience with it. But it turns out to be a perfect mood-setter for the story that slowly emerges from the fog -- a story of friendship, loyalty, and commitment, and how those qualities help a troubled artist find respite from social and psychological demons that have long threatened to drive him over the edge.
The action starts in earnest when the melancholy hero, a sax player named Dale Turner, leaves New York for Europe, which took in more than one American jazz expatriate during the '50s.
Hoping a new environment will somehow soothe his feverish mind and renew his musical quest, he settles in Paris and joins the small but close-knit jazz community there. Its members share the job of baby-sitting for this gifted, troubled man -- holding his pay, making sure he gets to the club on time, keeping him away from the alcohol that has already come close to killing him.
It's obvious to everyone, including Dale, that this is a losing battle. Although the reasons for his suffering aren't spelled out, they have gone on too long and cut too deep for an overseas flight and a ``fresh start'' to erase.
Dale is about to collapse under their weight, perhaps with a sigh of relief, when a new friend enters his life: a white Parisian jazz fan named Francis Borier, who has idolized Dale from afar. Thrilled at the chance to be near his hero, not to mention helping and encouraging him, he selflessly takes the crumbling musician under his wing. Gradually but gratefully, Dale responds to this friendship -- relaxing his emotions, clearing his turbulent thoughts, curbing his self-destructive habits.
``Round Midnight'' isn't a sentimental film, despite some flat-footed statements about the closeness of beauty and pain. Francis's friendship is no panacea, and eventually Dale feels the time has come to face New York and his jazz roots again. Francis has already put a strain on his own life -- he's a single parent with a young daughter to care for -- and can't stay forever as Dale's guardian angel. In the end, Dale loses the long battle with his inner demons. But it's clear that Francis's presence has made a crucial and uplifting difference in what could have been a far more tortured twilight to his life.
Although it's an American production, ``Round Midnight'' was directed by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, whose slow, measured style has made such films as ``The Clockmaker'' and ``Let Joy Reign Supreme'' seem more lethargic than contemplative. Magically, this approach is just right for the balladlike moods of ``Round Midnight,'' which takes its title from the greatest of all jazz nocturnes. The story and characters have ample time to stretch, breathe, and burrow their way under the viewer's skin.
Also contributing to the film's success is a deliciously eccentric performance by Dexter Gordon and a likable one by Fran,cois Cluzet, who would be more effective as Francis if he weren't such a Dustin Hoffman look-alike. The fine cast also includes real-life musicians Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson, among others, and real-life movie director Martin Scorsese as a pushy agent.
``Round Midnight'' is a downbeat film that touches on more than its share of unhappiness. Tavernier has a deep love for jazz, however -- in conversation, he has delighted me with his witty comparisons of filmmakers and musicians -- and treats the material with taste and tact.
By all accounts, the real Bud Powell was vastly more disturbed than his counterpart on-screen, and the makers of ``Round Midnight'' deserve praise for stressing his genius more than his nightmares. Jazz historian Nat Hentoff once wrote that, even on a bad night, when Powell played ``whatever else was roaring or whispering in his head [was] swept aside by music.'' That's the man who's evoked and eulogized in ``Round Midnight,'' surely the best fiction film ever made on a jazz subject.