My favorite line in cinema isnâ€™t in Casablanca or Goodfellas (NSFW: Goodfellas). It wasnâ€™t written by Paddy Chayefsky or Joel and Ethan Coen. The actor who spoke it is not Meryl Streep and the film never got a major theatrical release. Itâ€™s the last line of a beautiful scene (one of many) in Guiseppe Tornatoreâ€™s The Legend of 1900. A trumpet player is part of a long line of sad-sack job-seekers at the foot of a huge ocean-liner. He finally reaches the quartermaster who informs him that thereâ€™s no place for him on this trip. Rather than take that at face-value, the musician lays into his horn. Like heâ€™s theÂ Pied Piper, the quartermaster and many of the willing workers follow the music–hypnotized as he wails on that thing–finally finishing with a huge high haunting note that floats over the shipyard. Silence. Applause. The quartermaster asks in a booming voice: â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€ The trumpeter answers: â€œI dunno.â€ Then thereâ€™s the following piece of brilliance:
â€œWhen you donâ€™t know what it is, itâ€™s Jazz!â€
This is an old (almost tired) concept, of course, and others have given a version of the same line, but in this scene at this moment in this movie â€”itâ€™s perfect. The same can be said of the movie as a whole. Itâ€™s certainly been done. A brilliant man-boy that doesnâ€™t know where he belongs or how to take the first step to get to wherever heâ€™sÂ going spends two film-hours ignoring advice and wringing his hands. Shakespeare wrote about that; so did the Greeks and Romans. Every Jim Carrey picture is a version of that same concept. But this one feels different.
This is a film where beautiful poetic visuals and unlikely-but-possible situations create a fable more than just tell a story. This film style, sometimes called Magical Realism, has never had a more able ambassador or produced a better film-maker than Guiseppe Tornatore. Cinema Paradiso is one of the most critically-beloved films of the last twenty years and A Pure Formality is a classic of foreign noir matched only by The Wages of Fear or some of the best films of Fritz Lang (or, more recently, Wim Wenders). 1900 marked Tornatoreâ€™s English-Language debutâ€”Paradiso is in Italian; Formality, Frenchâ€”but it loses none of the poetry of his earlier films. Pruitt Taylor Vince is the trumpet player and our narrator, telling us (and a semi-willing music store proprietor) the story of Danny Boodman T. D. Lemon 1900, a piano-playing genius who was born on a cruiseliner and has never set foot on dry land. Itâ€™s immediately clear that this is a capital-letter â€œEpic Storyâ€. Sweeping crane shots and the tactile presence of the 1920s bring to mind a lower-budget higher-concept Titanic, released just a year earlier.
1900 is the worldâ€™s best piano-player. Heâ€™s the reason rich and powerful people board “his” ship in the first place, but 1900 is more comfortable among the steerage folk, learning their music; incorporating it, bettering it. His legend reaches the ears of the famously diamond-toothed jazz great Jelly Roll Morton, who boards the ship only to challenge our hero to one of the great impromptu film art battles, reminiscent of this or this (but, you know, much better than those and with less Gregory Hines than this or this). One of these days I will write a long post thanking the powers that be for the middle-career renaissance that Clarence Williams III has engineered, but for now Iâ€™ll just say that his Jelly Roll Morton is fantastic. Fire-breathing and proud, heâ€™s dynamic and unashamedly over-the-top as he begs and demands the adoration he deserves. The actorâ€™s grandfather was Clarence Williams (Iâ€™ve maybe never written a more obvious sentence). The elder Williams was a piano man and producer, an early jazz great and contemporary of Jelly Roll Morton in New Orleans. Whether that connection brought any special insight to the performance is probably unimportant; the brief appearance nearly steals the movie.
Weâ€™re introduced to 1900 just after his birth and stay with him through all the pangs and pains of growth and aging. His whole world is a boat, but his adoptive father had a wide range of interests, so heâ€™s well-versed in horse-racing and has an adventurous streak. His mind is of a philosophical bent. The music serves as an outlet for his curiosity and wonder at the twists of the full human condition he sees as beyond his own reach.
More than the terrific work of the director/screenwriter and his stellar cast, what really sells The Legend of 1900 is the filmâ€™s score. The composer is the legendary Ennio Morricone who began as a student of the trumpet before his partnership with classmate Sergio Leone led to a career that to date has included composition of original music for more than 500 film and television projects (including 14 projects with Guiseppe Tornatore, two due to be released this year). For 1900, Morricone achieves some of the best work in a career that produced some of the most recognizable music of the last century. The music is the real star of the movie. If it were a silent film with no dialogue cards, the music would make every moment of the action crystal-clear. In a surreal moment, even the script reflects this relationship. From beginnng to end, the music is our guide to The Legend of 1900. Weâ€™re surrounded and overpowered, comforted and finally satisfied by the story it tells.
By the way, hereâ€™s the whole dang thing. Get to it.
Todayâ€™s Netflix bonus is the aforementioned Cinema Paradiso, a masterwork from the Writer/Director and Composer of The Legend of 1900. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1988, itâ€™s a movie everyone should see. Some of the best films are clearly in love with movies and movie-making and this is one of the best of them. Get to it.Â