Picks and Pans Review: Round Midnight

updated 10/13/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 01:00AM

Dexter Gordon has been a sorcerer on the tenor sax for 40 years and more than 80 LPs. Now, at 63, he makes his feature film debut as a troubled black American jazz musician and delivers the performance of the year. There is more astounding news. Far from boring the nonjazz buff, the musical sequences, shot in long takes, become an integral part of the drama. Director and co-screenwriter Bertrand (A Sunday in the Country) Tavernier has loosely based his story on the real experiences of Francis Paudras, a young Frenchman who met the legendary jazz pianist Bud Powell in Paris in the late '50s and tried in vain to save his American idol from self-destructing on alcohol. Tavernier, unimpressed with actors faking musical prowess (such as Robert De Niro in New York, New York), insisted on a real musician for the role. After combing the market, he seized on Gordon—like Powell, a pioneer of the bebop jazz of the '40s, but unlike Powell, one who kicked a problem, heroin, to make a major comeback in 1976. A tall (6'5"), elegant man with a shambling gait, Gordon speaks slowly, in a rhythmic rasp that runs the scale from self-mocking to mournful. "I'm tired of everything except the music," he tells French actor François Cluzet, playing the fan who holds nothing more dear than his idol's salvation—not even his job, a possible reconciliation with his wife or the care of his young daughter, beautifully acted by 12-year-old Gabrielle Haker. To the musically obsessed Cluzet, Gordon is a god. Constantly watched by his employers lest he slip out for drinks, Gordon's jazzman is a human shell until he takes the stage. There, every fiber of his body becomes attuned to the beat, his fingers show a surgeon's precision, his arms an interpretive dancer's grace. Tavernier is right: This can't be faked. Along with Cluzet, we are enthralled—and later enraged. After a few drinking binges that land Gordon in the hospital, we lose patience with Cluzet for sacrificing so much for a man who won't save himself. Still, the selfishness in the Samaritan helps the film skirt false nobility for something more truthful and telling. By trying to rescue the artist, he is rescuing his art and, Cluzet thinks, sharing in art's immortality. Credit must go to the musical tapestry woven by such jazz greats as Herbie Hancock, Billy Higgins and Pierre Michelot, as well as superb acting cameos by Lonette (The Cotton Club) McKee as an old flame of Gordon's, newcomer Sandra Reaves-Phillips as his watch dog like friend and especially Martin Scorsese, director of Raging Bull, as a hustling club owner. Above all there is Dexter Gordon, evoking the highs and lows of the bebop era with stunning virtuosity. The result is spellbinding entertainment. (PG-13)

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