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

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by Sergio
November 10, 2012 4:01 PM
8 Comments
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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It was originally made as a TV movie by Universal and Motown for NBC, back in 1977 and it actually did get a small theatrical release, though I can’t recall if it was before or after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

.

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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8 Comments

  • anonymous | December 5, 2012 8:54 AMReply

    Have a little historical perspective, for god's sake. This was American corporate mainstream network television at the very beginning of the Carter era, when a film like Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" barely got a eyeblink in the white press.
    A black audience of the late 70's seeing a black musical artist called a genius by a white capitalist sporting busts of Beethoven and Mozart scattered all around the "cheap sets" is nothing to snicker at.

  • Monique A. Williams | November 12, 2012 8:46 PMReply

    I actually Netflixed this today and enjoyed it. It was far from perfect, cheesy, hammy, all that stuff, but the music was great and Billy Dee was as fine as ever. Costumes were a delight, and it was nice not to see a movie wallowing in the whole "Black people shole had it bad," theme that is so pervasive in period and current films. It probably was 99% fiction, but it wasn't billed as the definitive life story of Scott Joplin. What happened to the genre known as historical fiction? Why does everything have to be soooo pure that it can't just stand on its feet as entertainment? Black people take everything so damn serious!

  • tolly devlin | November 12, 2012 7:37 PMReply

    So tell me ...,whats the difference between this & another bio-pic the folks at Motown fudged up. Does any one really believe that Lady Sings the Blues has anything to do with Billie Holiday's actual life.

  • sergio | November 12, 2012 7:58 PM

    No difference really. Lady Sings the Blues was 99% fiction too

  • theyounglion | November 12, 2012 12:11 PMReply

    I saw this film many, many years ago, and what I most remember is Billy Dee Williams reading of the line, "You failed me!" Only, it came out as "You faaaaaaiiiiled me!!!!!" That, plus the look in his eyes...priceless. :-)

    Scott Joplin has never gotten respect from Hollywood. For the last 40 years most people have associated his music with the classic film "The Sting". But the movie ends up slapping Joplin in the face. Legendary film composer Marvin Hamlisch masterfully adapted Joplin's music for the film. However, in the credits, Hamlisch gets his own title card: "Music Adapted By Marvin Hamlisch". This is FOLLOWED by a title card with "Piano Rags by Scott Joplin"...along with "Color by Technicolor" and the Motion Picture Association of America insignia and classification number. That's right: the guy who ADAPTED the music gets his own card, while the man who actually WROTE the music shares a card cluttered with technical credits and a standard industry organizational logo. (And how many people understood that "Piano Rags by" is the equivalent to "Music by"?)

    As I noted in another forum regarding this, the arranger never takes a superior position to the composer. Never! Could you imagine them doing George Gershwin that way?

  • Monique A. Williams | November 12, 2012 10:35 AMReply

    I remember when my piano teacher gave me Joplin music to play, it was always my favorite. That said, I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I enjoyed this lil clip. #dontkillme

  • Barbara | November 11, 2012 9:36 PMReply

    I watched and recorded the tv movie about Scott Joplin, starring Billy D. Williams. I have to have it transferred to DVD since I no longer have a VCR to play it on. I'm surprised to know that the movie was basically fiction.

    In no way will I go see the "Blackface" Nina Simone movie starring Zoe Saladna; nor will I ever spend a cent to rent it or buy it on DVD. I think it's horrible what they are doing to the image of our High Priestess Of Soul.

    I have friends who are discussing standing in front of major theatres with picket signs and flyers to encourage both Black and Whites not to see the movie; and they plan to explain what "Blackface" means in Black American history.

  • Ava | November 11, 2012 8:35 PMReply

    The question of why make things up in a bio pic and why not just fictionalize a character entirely, I think, might be the reason why so many are up in arms about the forthcoming Nina Simone bio pic. When so much license is taken as to make many important details about the subject's life completely unrecognizable (or if details are absent), it makes one wonder 'why not just make it a complete work of fiction with fictional characters?'
    I don't plan on seeing the upcoming Simone biopic but I must admit I'm interested in whether it turns out being a work worthy of turning detractors into fools or whether it will be filed away put in with the same caliber of this Scott Joplin movie that you just described (I haven't seen it but I fear that it may soon come to Bounce TV--lol. Lawd, how they do love Billy Dee Williams on that station!)

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