I read Herbie Hancock’s autobiography, Possibilities, a few weeks ago and he talked about winning the Oscar for the soundtrack of ‘Round Midnight which he also acted in. This peaked my curiosity so I watched it on the airplane on the way home today. In French director Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film, Dexter Gordon himself plays a fictionalized combination of Bud Powell and Lester Young named Dale Turner who goes to Paris and befriends a local Parisian Francis Borlet (played by François Clauzet). It features cameos from Herbie, Wayne Shorter and even Martin Scorsese and is a moving and intimate film. It is based on the memoir/biography Dance of the Infidels by Francis Paudras (I have not read this, has someone reading this post read it? worthwhile?). The acting from Dexter Gordon is spectacular – he was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. Having not seen many films about jazz (Bird, Straight No Chaser), I was blown away by this portrayal.
In real life, Bud Powell was a pioneer in bebop and an incredible pianist who was brutalised by NY police and mentally damaged for the rest of his life. He moved to Paris in 1959 and moved in with Francis who took care of him in 1962. In 1964, he went back to Paris and stood up Francis at the airport when it was time to go back to Paris and he died shortly thereafter from alcoholism and poor health. Also in real life, Dexter Gordon lived for many years in Paris. The sax playing of Lester Young was soft and expressive like that of Dale in the movie. The other reference was the recording session that Dale does in the film actually did transpire between Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell.
In the movie, Dale was brutalised in the military repeatedly after defending himself against a white officer’s attacks and suffered (as Bud) permanent brain damage. He goes to Paris under the tutelage of Buttercup, a black woman in the Paris Blue Note Club where he is kept under lock and key. Francis who loves his music freezes in the rain outside listening to Dale’s music coming through the induction vents on the sidewalk. He eventually works his way into Dale’s life and becomes his best friend – meanwhile inviting him to live in his home and keeping him clean. It is a beautiful and touching story of friendship that I will not spoil for those that have not seen it. The soundtrack by Herbie Hancock won an Oscar and Dexter was nominated for one.
One moment in particular I appreciated and which really spoke to me is when Dale is sitting outside the club looking puzzled and Francis approaches him to ask what is wrong. Dale tells him that he was forgotten the words to the standard “Autumn Leaves”. Francis sings is softly to him and Dale reenters the club and plays a gorgeous solo over the tune. This made me realise how musicians like Dexter Gordon and others took inspiration from the lyrics of the songs to infuse such emotion into their interpretations. It was a fascinating moment in this fantastic film.I guess I took for granted that the soloist was thinking more about his own chord changes and melding with his group when in fact the additional factor of the song’s context itself is just as key.
A definite must for jazz fans was well as cinema buffs. Just keep some tissues around for the ending. Fantastic, amazing piece of art.