Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Scott Joplin (1977)

          Piggybacking on the renewed popularity of Scott Joplin’s music that emanated from its use in The Sting (1973), this biopic tracks the rise and fall of Joplin, the first African-American composer to receive mainstream notoriety. Alas, the picture is delivered via the stilted artifice of a formulaic backlot production. Costumes look as if they just came from a warehouse, props and sets seem absurdly pristine, and director Jeremy Paul Kagan’s blocking and dramaturgy are pedestrian. It doesn’t help, either, that the film’s weakest performance is its most important. Billy Dee Williams, a charmer who did fine work in romantic and supporting roles throughout the ’70s, simply lacks the chops to play every dimension of Joplin’s turbulent life. Williams is too restrained in quiet scenes, and too unnatural in volatile moments. Another fundamental problem with Scott Joplin is that the movie hews painfully close to the standard playbook for cinema stories about artists who fall from glory to ignominy.
          The story begins jubilantly, with Joplin joining the ranks of “professors” who pound out tunes in Deep South whorehouses. Eventually, Joplin’s desire to compose his own music leads Joplin and his best friend, Chauvin (Clifton Davis), to enter a piano-playing contest in St. Louis. This event brings Joplin’s music to the attention of Stark (Art Carney), a music publisher who recognizes Joplin’s talent and the novelty of marketing a black tunesmith. With this key professional relationship in place, Joplin is off on a journey that soon includes marriage to the lovely Belle (Margaret Avery), although the syphilis Joplin contracted back in his brothel days spoils domestic bliss. And so it goes, through episodes of success and failure, until Joplin wanders off into obscurity at the end of the movie while narration describes his posthumous resurgence in the ’70s. Scott Joplin gets more and more turgid as it plunges deeper into Joplin’s life, because the movie succumbs to florid melodrama and wildly overwritten dialogue; only the most innately spontaneous performers amid the supporting cast manage to imbue their scenes with believability. Thanks to infectious music and a sprinkling of interesting biographical details, the picture merits a casual viewing, although the subject matter deserved better than this wax-museum recitation.

Scott Joplin: FUNKY

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