ROUND MIDNIGHT – Herbie Hancock
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
During the 1980s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made some truly baffling decisions with regard to the Oscar for Best Original Score. In 1980 Michael Gore’s light pop score for Fame beat out The Empire Strikes Back. In 1981 Vangelis’s one-theme electronic noodling on Chariots of Fire somehow defeated Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1988 Dave Grusin won for The Milagro Beanfield War – a film and score which, at least amongst my casual acquaintances, virtually no-one has seen or heard. Perhaps the strangest decision, however, came in 1986 when jazz composer and musician Herbie Hancock won for his score for Round Midnight, beating composers of such eminence as James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, and Ennio Morricone, whose losing score for The Mission was not only the best score of 1986, but is on the list of the best scores ever written.
Round Midnight is a drama film set in the jazz clubs of 1950s Paris, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and written by Tavernier and David Rayfiel. Real-life jazz tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon stars as Dale Turner, a washed up former musician drowning his failing career in booze and drugs, and who spends his evenings jamming with his friends in the legendary Blue Note club in Saint-Germain. One night Turner chances a meeting with Francis Borler (François Cluzet), a struggling graphic designer who became a fan of Turner’s during his heyday; gradually, the two men become friends, and reflect on their lives, their loves, and on music. The film co-starred a number of other real-life jazz musicians, and was a critical success, with special praise being reserved for the world-weary Gordon, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance.
Musically, Round Midnight is a jazz lover’s dream. It features performances of legendary standards written by Theolonious Monk, George and Ira Gershwin, and Bud Powell, among others, and showcases standout performances by contemporary jazz artists like Hancock and Gordon, as well as pianist Cedar Walton, guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeters Chet Baker and Freddie Hubbard, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This is the most authentic jazz imaginable, the sort of music that wafts from smoke-filled bars, where patrons hunker in darkened corners and lament their lost loves through the bottom of a glass of bourbon. The musicianship on display is remarkable, from Hancock’s virtuoso piano performance and Bobby McFerrin’s soulful scatting in the title track “Round Midnight,” to Gordon’s sultry saxophone impressions in “Body and Soul,” Wayne Shorter’s contribution to the more sunny and finger-snapping “Una Noche Con Francis,” Lonette McKee’s beautifully emotional vocalizations on Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” and Chet Baker’s tremendously expressive solo trumpet on the toe-tapping “Rhythm-a-Ning”.
However, what this music most certainly is not is an original score. The title track, “Round Midnight,” was written in 1944. “Body and Soul” was written in 1930. “Rhythm-a-Ning” was written in 1957. “How Long Has This Been Going On?” was written for a stage musical, Funny Face, in 1928. The only truly original pieces on the album comprise three instrumentals, “Bérangère’s Nightmare,” “Still Time,” and “Chan’s Song (Never Said),” the latter of which was co-written by Stevie Wonder. These pieces comprise just 11 minutes and 18 seconds of original music, and they are good: “Bérangère’s Nightmare” is a funk-inflected, nervous-sounding piece featuring agitated double bass thrums, edgy trilling pianos, anxious snare drum riffs, and an insistent pulsating electric guitar which appears to have more in common with the 1960s jazz people like Lalo Schifrin wrote. “Still Time” has a sentimental, rhapsodic piano solo at its core, and features Dexter Gordon’s own poignant soprano saxophone solos filling the air between the tickled ivories. “Chan’s Song (Never Said)” is soft and gentle, almost soothing, with an undercurrent of romance in the lilting pianos, and a touch of the French New Wave in Bobby McFerrin’s unmistakable vocal stylings.
In many ways, you can’t judge Round Midnight like a ‘traditional’ film score, because it isn’t one. And I don’t mean it isn’t traditional because it’s jazz, because there have been a number of absolutely wonderful jazz scores, dating back to the 1950s, which simultaneously act as dramatic, narrative underscore in their own right. What I mean is that Round Midnight’s original music is indistinguishable from the pre-existing music by design, featuring mainly as diegetic music emanating from the Blue Note’s stage. It’s not meant to function as dramatic underscore, conveying emotions or story elements. It’s simply the music that surrounds these characters in their daily lives; they hear it, feel it, and live it constantly. I feel that I must again emphasize just how good this music is as pure music – Hancock’s arrangements of the jazz standards are exemplary, and the array of talented performers he gathered to play the tunes is a who’s who of the best jazzmen of the 1980s.
But, again, you shouldn’t be able to win an Original Score Oscar for eleven minutes of original music, irrespective of how good that music is. This is clearly an example of Oscar voters being unaware of what they were voting for, and not realizing what was new music written for the film and what was written in the 1920s. On the one hand this is understandable, because Hancock’s original compositions are hugely authentic and fit in perfectly with the style of the rest of the music, but the bottom line is that it should never have been nominated in the first place. Aficionados of the genre will love this album and the moody atmosphere it creates, but film music fans are destined to remember it as the score which robbed Ennio Morricone of the Oscar he richly deserved.
Buy the Round Midnight soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Round Midnight (written by Thelonious Monk, Bernie Hanighen, and Cootie Williams) (5.35)
- Body and Soul (written by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, Frank Eyton, and Johnny Green) (5.54)
- Bérangère’s Nightmare (3.06)
- Fair Weather (written by Kenny Dorham) (6.05)
- Una Noche Con Francis (written by Bud Powell) (4.22)
- The Peacocks (written by Jimmy Rowles) (7.16)
- How Long Has This Been Going On? (written by Ira Gershwin and George Gershwin) (3.12)
- Rhythm-a-Ning (written by Theolonious Monk) (4.11)
- Still Time (3:50)
- Minuit aux Champs-Elysées (written by Henri Renaud) (3.26)
- Chan’s Song (Never Said) (written by Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock) (4.15)
Running Time: 51 minutes 14 seconds
Columbia Records 40464 (1986)
Music composed and arranged by Herbie Hancock. Featured musical soloists Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Dexter Gordon, Pierre Michelot, Billy Higgins, John McLaughlin, Chet Baker, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton. Special vocal performances by Bobby McFerrin, Chet Baker and Lonette McKee. Recorded and mixed by William Flagioliet. Album produced by Herbie Hancock.