Allan Hunter meets Bernard Tavernicr. director of Round Midnight. hailed as one ofthe year‘s best films.
Rototd .llltlltlg’lll is unarguably the finest film about jazz ever seen. A pacan to the emotional richness of the musicians life. it is also a celebration ofthc worth oftrue friendship. a quality that endows the film with a widespread appeal far beyond that of the jazz buffghctto.
Set in the Paris of IUS‘). the film focuses on the relationship between two men. Dexter (iordon plays a w orld-weary. alcohol-ravaged American saxophonist who now lives only for the pleasuresot his music. lirancois ( ‘luzet is a besotted fan w ho befriends ( iordon and offers him the love ofsomeone w hocares. 'l'heir deepening friendship. based on equal measures of esteem. hero-worship. loneliness and necessity. brings ( iordon a twilight age of sell—redemption and aliows (‘Iu/et cherished moments with a man w hose artistry ‘changed my life.
Director Bertrand ’l'avernier has been a jazz lov er for many years and felt it incumbent upon himself to create a film that would make amends for the sometimes shameful and always inadequate manner in which jazz has previously been dramatised on screen. "l'here is a line by 'l'rui'faut that I like that says w ithin every good film there is a documentary. You hay e to be true to a certam principle to reach a more universal truth. I think. So. whilst 1
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did not want to make a film only for the jazz fan. because they can confiscate the meaning of jazz for themselves like every other kind of ‘buff' does. I didn't intend escaping the reality or the truth about the emotional life ofthese people. I was doing the film as a reaction against certain other filtns made about jazz. like l’arts Blues and others.‘
'l‘av ernier believes that the absence of jazz filtns from the ranks of the cinema classics can be explained by a combination of interlocking factors. ‘l'iit's'tly. l think it had a lot to do with racism. It has to do with getting the finance to deal with the subject matter because to treat jazz honestly you must tackle everything which is around it. like drugs. alcohol. racial prejudice and the way some white people exploited the situation. Also. I think it is difficult for a l lollywood scriptwriter to grasp the life of a jazz musician. 'l‘he people who made l’arts Blues were good. The writer of Paris Blues. Walter Bernstein wrote some beautiful films like lllt’ .llolly .llagutres. which I adore. and Sounder. which was ten times more honest than The (in/or l’ttrplt’. yet they didn't capture the cryptic. enigmatic world of a jazz musician.‘
'l'avernier‘s own education in jazz came largely via disc. As a teenager he claims a passing acquaintance with the drums that resulted in a terrible rendition of "linroof Blues'.
More lasting pleasure was derived from listening to records of Billie llolliday. Bud Powell and Louis Armstrong. The cinema failed to capture the unique gifts ofthese great artists and 'l'avernier reflects on an appalling string of lost opportunities. ‘When they gave Billie llolliday the part ofthe maid in New Orleans it showed such a lack of taste or good judgement. Louis Armstrong was always used as a clown. When you think about his real life; the fights. how demanding he was about the music. his passion. the way he was exploited by his agent - that would have made a movie. What they did for a long time. again it‘s a question of racism. was to film the lives ofthe white band leaders — The Fabulous Dorsey's. ’l'lte (ilenn .llt'ller Story. Tllt’ Benny Goodman Story. Dexter told me that Benny (ioodman was like Martin Luther King to jazz musicians because he was the first white man to de-segregate his band. 'I’hat never featured in the movie. Duke Ellington was one of the greatest musicians this century yet you have to wait until ()tto l’reminger's Anatomy ofa .llurder before he is asked to write a film score. It's like a joke. just some terrible joke.‘
Round .llidntgltt is a magnificent way to make amends for previous failings. Based on incidents in the lives of Francis l’audras and Bud Powell. the film is respectfully dedicated to Powell and Lester Young and came about during some post-prandial chit-chat between 'l‘avernier. director Martin Scorsese and producer Irwin Winkler. Discussing their ‘idcal' projects. 'l’avernier mentioned his wish to film a story about American jazz musicians in Paris in the late Fifties. Winkler. a jazz lover who had produced New York New York. was interested and began the chain of events that brought Round .llulntgltt to the screen.
'l'avernier describes Winkler as a “very supportive and encouraging producer‘ whose enthusiasm for the film never wavered. Unknown to 'l‘avernier. the film was being turned down all over I lollywood. It was only later that Winkler insisted that this had been a good omen; his earlier film Rocky had faced similar indifference and didn't do too badly.
The script for Round .lltdnt'gltt was written in collaboration between 'l’avernier and David Rayfiel. 'l'avernier had admired the A merican‘s work for Sydney Pollack. including his uncredited refinements to 0m ofxl/rt'ea. and enjoys the stimulus ofa partnership where the tnere presence of a co-writer spurs him on to overcome the enveloping laziness that descends at the sight of a blank sheet of paper. Indeed. 'l‘avernier has chosen all his Round .llt'dnt'gltt collaborators wisely and well; Herbie Hancock is the musical director. Bruno de Keyzer contributes some glowing widescreen photography and Alexandre 'l‘rauner’s set designs are impeccable.
Early on in the development of Round Midnight it was decided that
Dale 'l‘urner would be played by a musician and not a professional actor. Dexter Gordon is Dale. a shambling. self-destructive little-boy-lost and his performance Completely vindicates 'l‘avernier's decision. "l'here was a resistance from the guy who was in charge of production at Warner's. When he saw the test of Dexter he said. ‘Don‘t take him. he's terrible. He looks like a homosexual the way he says. “Lady” and the way he moves his hands.‘ lrwin said that with a stupid reaction like that he knew we were right. Dexter has wonderful hands —— like birds.‘
(‘areful casting has been a hallmark ofl‘avernier's career. and (iordon‘s work in Round .llt'dnt'g/tt is a further illustration of the director‘s unfailing selection of the right person for the right role. ‘I always imagine I can discover and use people in a new way. Before lllt' Judge and tlte xlssasxtn Michel (ialabru had been known as a comedian. liddy Mitchell was a pop singer. Louis Duereux was just right for Sunday in the ( ‘ountry. With the direction. the lens and the framing l
8'l’he List 12 Dec-Slan