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Revisiting ‘Scott Joplin’ The Movie, Starring Billy Dee Williams (Or How Not To Make A Film About A Black Composer)

Revisiting 'Scott Joplin' The Movie, Starring Billy Dee Williams (Or How Not To Make A Film About A Black Composer)

With all our recent articles on this blog regarding films about black classical composers, such as Julius Eastman (HERE), it immediately got me thinking about that 1977 Scott Joplin film starring Billy 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It was originally made as a TV movie by Universal and Motown for NBC, back in 1977, and it actually did get a limited theatrical release, though I can’t recall if it was before or after the TV broadcast. I don’t remember seeing it playing in any theaters that I can recall. 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. Dick Hyman, who recorded all of Joplin’s music for a 5 LP RCA set, which was never re-issued entirely on CD, and which I own, is probably the best I’ve heard. He also played and arranged the music for the Joplin film, which is the best thing it’s got going for it.

Joplin was a forward thinking composer. He was one of very few black composers of his period (the late 1800s/early 1900s), along with Harry Lawrence Freeman, who was writing full operas as well. His first opera, A Guest of Honor, which dealt with racism (pretty bold for that time), was long thought to have been one of his best works. It was believed that Joplin destroyed the score himself, shortly before his death. But it turns out that it was actually confiscated in lieu of unpaid bills that Joplin owed for a touring production of the opera. It hasn’t been found since then, but perhaps there is always a chance of the score is lying in some dust covered library, on some underground basement shelf, or in someone’s attic, waiting to be found.

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

But the film on Joplin’s life, starring Billy Dee Williams, is another thing altogether. Joplin’s life was full of drama, brief moments of triumph, and, at the end, sorrow and disappointment. It should’ve made for a really terrific and poignant film. 

However Williams’ film wasn’t it.

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

If you’re going to make a film about a real person, and you 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 forward, in a misguided effort to make Joplin’s tale more “dramatic,” when his real-life story is more than dramatic and fascinating enough.

Take a look at the scene below from the film, which features a piano playing competition in a brothel. Such competitions happened and reflected Joplin’s roughneck, bawdy life. He did, after all, die from syphilis, after going totally insane as a result of the disease – a common occurrence back then. But the scene doesn’t work at all. It’s over the top, and rings false. Some Hollywood screenwriter’s and director’s distorted imagination of what the character’s 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 is that he was a composer of catchy little tunes who died young. The End.

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

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