The French-American film Round Midnight, directed by Bertrand Tavernier and starring my late husband, Dexter Gordon, as a jazz musician in Paris in the late 1950s, premiered in New York City 30 years ago today. As I near completion of Dexter’s biography, Dexter Calling: The Life and Music of Dexter Gordon, memories of the film come flooding back. They are bittersweet, as many of the performers have since passed away, most recently Bobby Hutcherson (1941–2016), who died this past summer. Bobby plays Ace in the film and delivers one of its most memorable lines. In the hallway of the Hotel Louisiane, Ace is holding a bowl of jambalaya as Buttercup walks past. He says, about living in Paris, “It would be the best city in the world if I could just find some okra.” Dexter loved that line, and whenever he repeated it to Bobby, they would both burst out laughing.
Arguably the greatest movie musical ever made, Singin’ in the Rain is celebrated as much for its songs and dances as its behind-the-scenes lore: Gene Kelly’s 101-degree fever while filming the title number; Donald O’Connor taking to his bed with exhaustion after filming “Make ’Em Laugh”—only to have to reshoot it days later due to a camera malfunction; Debbie Reynolds rehearsing until her feet bled. But of all the “making of” stories, the most impressive is that Reynolds, only 19 at the time, learned to dance in just three months to play leading lady Kathy Selden.
Like many great biopics before it, Miles Ahead focuses on just a small period of time in its subject’s life, jumping into jazz legend Miles Davis’s career during the trumpeter’s drug-filled 1970s musical hiatus. Making his directorial debut, Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle also stars as Davis, and he cowrote and coproduced the film as well. It’s safe to say this has been Cheadle’s passion project, one that certainly paid off—Miles Ahead was chosen to close last year’s New York Film Festival, where the audience adored it.
Nina Simone’s voice was notable for its range of expression: It could be jubilant, reverent, haunting, despairing, angry, fierce, scathing, gentle, sensual, bawdy and even more. She punctuated and teased it out with masterful piano arrangements, but the riches were always in that voice. Whether singing standards associated with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald or the signature tunes of George Harrison, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Simone made each indelibly her own. With the controversial biopic Nina, starring Zoe Saldana, potentially forthcoming this year, what better time to get reacquainted with the real deal?