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'Scott Joplin' The Movie (How Not To Make A Film About A Black Composer)

Shadow and Act By Sergio | Shadow and Act November 10, 2012 at 4:01PM

With all our recent articles of late regarding films about black classical composers such as Julius Eastman (HERE) and George Bridgetower (HERE), it immediately got me thinking about that Scott Joplin film starring Bille Dee Williams with Margaret Avery, Clifton Davis and Art Carney.
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Scott Joplin

With all our recent articles of late regarding films about black classical composers such as Julius Eastman (HERE) and George Bridgetower (HERE), it immediately got me thinking about that Scott Joplin film starring Bille Dee Williams with Margaret Avery, Clifton Davis and Art Carney.

Never heard of it? That’s understandable. It sort of came and went without leaving any sort of impact at all.

It was originally made as a TV movie by Universal and Motown for NBC, back in 1977 and it actually did get a small theatrical release, though I can’t recall if it was before or after the film was broadcast.  I don’t remember seeing it playing in any theaters that I can recall.  It was probably in a small number of theaters in a few cities. But however, what I do remember vividly still is getting extremely pissed off when I saw the NBC broadcast.

But I’ll get to that in a minute...

First I must tell you that I am without any  hesitation an unabashed lover of Joplin’s music. He was, without question, one of the greatest American composers ever. Most people like to think of Joplin’s music as old fashioned, quaint, hummable little tunes. But his music is actually more rhythmically complex, technically advanced and imaginatively nuanced than people realize.

Very few pianists are able to pull off, or have come to grief playing his music, though many have tried. Though the best I think is Dick Hyman who recorded all of Joplin’s music for a 5 LP RCA set, which was never re-issued entirely on CD, which I have. He also played and arranged the music for the Joplin film, which is the best thing it’s got going for it.

But like I said, I’ll get to that in a minute...

And Joplin was a forward thinking composer as well. One of very few black composers of his period, along with Harry Lawrence Freeman, who was writing serious full operas too. His first opera, A Guest of Honor, which dealt with racism (pretty bold for that time), the score for which was long thought to have been one of the works Joplin destroyed himself, shortly before his death. 

Turns out it was confiscated in lieu of unpaid bills that Joplin owed for a touring production of Honor. It hasn’t been found since then, but perhaps there is always a chance of the score lying in some dust covered library underground basement shelf, or in someone’s attic waiting to be found.

His second opera Treemonshia  did survive and has been recorded twice and been performed by opera companies in the U.S. and Europe

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But the film is another thing altogether. Joplin’s life was full of drama, brief  moments of triumph and at the end, sorrow and disappointment. It would make a really terrific and poignant film. However Williams’  film isn’t it.

It’s so woefully inaccurate that the only similarities between the real life of Joplin and this film, is the fact there’s a black guy by the name of Scott Joplin and that’s about it.

If you’re going to make a film about a real person and make everything up, then what’s the point? Relationships that barely or never existed are created, while real ones are ignored. Fictitious characters and false incidents are created, while more interesting real ones are dropped for the sake of moving the story along in a misguided effort to make the story more "dramatic" when Joplin’s real story is dramatic and fascinating enough.

Take a look at this scene from the film of a piano playing competition in a brothel. Such competitions happened and reflected Joplin’s roughneck bawdy life.  He did after all die from syphilis, totally insane as a result of the disease, a common occurrence back then and even before. But in this scene, it doesn’t work at all.  It’s over the top and rings false. Some Hollywood screenwriter's and director's distorted imagination of what they were like.

And since the film was a  1970’s TV movie, there's a chintzy look to it, reflecting its limited budget and rushed 18-day production schedule. It’s all obviously studio backlot stuff.

What’s even worse is that, never in the film do we ever get any sense or understanding of who Joplin was. By the end, all we know was that he was a composer of catchy little tunes who died young. The End.

The film is available for viewing on Amazon download and on the Universal Vault DVD-on-demand specialty label, but I wouldn’t bother. A shame since there was so much about Joplin to explore and is so deserving of a more accurate and honest  film.

But here’s Hyman playing Joplin’s work Original Rags (HERE) which in its brief 4 minutes says more about the man than the entire movie does.


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