Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone. Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed. In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.
It isn’t so easy to be unobjectionable when the subject of your biopic is composer Scott Joplin, because Joplin died of syphilis at 48, and you can’t catch syphilis from a piano, if you get my meaning. Scott Joplin: The Story of a Man and His Music and also the Brain Disease he Picked Up from Some Whore is not a movie that will air on ABC. This movie is a curiosity because it attempts to address the issue of the sexually-transmitted disease that took his life, as well as the life of his child, without directly implicating Joplin as accountable.
One day, Joplin is minding his own business, playing a piano in a building that happens to be a brothel, when all of a sudden, wordlessly, a mysterious siren appears. She does a sexy dance and drags him upstairs while he’s helplessly trapped in the spell of her strange lady-magic. That’s how the movie sells it, anyway.
Billy Dee Williams’s performance as Joplin is completely at odds with that sort of honey-coating, and he sets aside his famed playboy persona to fill the character with guilt and self-consternation. When the disease first starts to attack his nervous system, and his hands quake and freeze at the piano, you can see what he’s thinking: “How could I have been so stupid?” He doesn’t blame life, or the woman, or even the disease. He clearly hates himself for jeopardizing his greatest passion by indulging a lesser one. Those expecting a jovial, freewheeling Lando Calrissian-as-Scott Joplin will be disappointed. Even from the start, Williams’s Joplin presents a humorless dignity. Music isn’t fun for him—it’s gravely important.
Attempting to outgrump him is Art Carney, the surly music producer who signs him to his label. By which I mean Carney prints sheet music of his songs so that people can play them on their own pianos at home. One cool thing about the turn of the 20th Century, this movie reminded me, was that there was a musician in every home. If you wanted to hear music, you had to play it yourself. I think, for that reason, people appreciated music more back then, and they really did take it more seriously, as Williams does here, because it actually required effort just to listen to it.
As you might expect, the music—all Joplin’s—also has a starring role in this movie, which takes any montage, concert, or travel sequence as an opportunity to play one of his rags in its entirety. But only the ones that you already know from The Sting. We hear “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” at least three times each, while some of his less well-known but superior works like “The Magnetic Rag” are neglected entirely. Joplin composed hundreds of such songs in his short lifetime, all of them dazzling, and this film could have exposed casual admirers to more of his ouvre, especially since the rights to his songs are as cheap as free. Instead, Scott Joplin falls into a common failure of the biopic: expecting the audience to “get” that a thing is important because they recognize it from somewhere, rather than letting the thing, in this case music, stand on its own merits as it has done for decades.
Scott Joplin presents its title character as a genius unappreciated in his own time, who wanted only for his music to be heard and enjoyed by others. The film closes with Joplin disappearing down a snowy alleyway to go die alone and penniless somewhere, as Carney narrates an epilogue explaining that, yes, that was Joplin’s music in The Sting, and he won a Pulitzer too, and you half-expect him to say “and now we’ve even made a movie about him!” And that’s supposed to be the note of triumph. But what the epilogue doesn’t say is that people listen to his music all the time now, because we definitely don’t. Being “the guy whose music was in The Sting” was not the summit of his aspirations, and the reference does him no favors. His ambition for a real audience remains unfulfilled. This movie could have helped change that, but in the end, it’s about as inspiring as a paragraph in a music history textbook.