The jazz world owes a debt of gratitude to the filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who died on March 25th, at the age of seventy-nine. The French auteur’s career included such stylistically disparate films as “A Sunday in the Country” and “Death Watch,” but his signature work may be the moody, impressionistic “ ’Round Midnight,” from 1986, about an aging American jazz musician in nineteen-fifties Paris and the admiring fan who befriends and helps him. It’s ironic (and maybe fitting) that it took a foreign director to do justice to a quintessential American art form. “ ’Round Midnight” is the film that jazz deserves.
American jazz movies tend to resemble the “scare films” in driver’s-ed classes, cautionary tales that show what happens when we don’t follow the rules. From “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927, right up through this past year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the story that Hollywood has told about jazz is one involving over-the-top caricatures, the lives of its geniuses rife with criminality, runaway libidos, wanton self-destruction, and obsessive madness. If American cinema has a message to impart, it seems to be that jazz musicians are trouble—best observed from a safe (read: morally superior) distance. They’re exotic creatures, these movies say. They’re not like us.
“ ’Round Midnight” is the exception. Tavernier treats the jazz milieu with respect, subtlety, and restraint. (He also co-wrote the screenplay, with David Rayfiel.) There is no overheated drama to be found