In Case You Missed It
In case you missed it… ‘The Legend of 1900’
‘The Legend of 1900’ (La Leggenda del pianista sull’oceano, 1998) is one of those little gems that slipped through the cracks. This film was written and directed by the marvelously brilliant, yet sporadically working Italian storyteller Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, Malena). Truth be told, I had heard of the film but never seen it until just recently when a friend and co-worker of mine had recommended this as a film he thought I would enjoy. So, now I’ve seen it and I have Zak to thank because this is a good movie with a great story.
‘The Legend of 1900’ begins with Max Tooney (Pruitt Taylor Vince) reluctantly entering a music shop near the docks, as if walking to his own death. Max plays the trumpet and he’s a darn good jazz musician, so the thought of selling his trumpet is like selling his very lungs. As he toils with the thought of letting his livelihood go, Max begins to tell the shopkeeper a story about the greatest piano player he’s ever heard, known simply as 1900, after hearing what he thought was a long lost phonograph matrix playing in the shop.
Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, Incredible Hulk) plays Danny Boodmann T.D. Lemon Nineteen Hundred, otherwise known as ‘1900’ for short. 1900 was abandoned as an infant on a cruise-liner and found by Danny Boodmann (Bill Nunn), a stoker for the ship’s steam engine. Danny raises 1900 as best he can and when he dies from a work related accident, 1900 ends up choosing to spend his entire life on the ship without ever setting foot on dry land.
Max Tooney takes on the role of narrator and the point-of-view from which the story is told. Tooney reflects on his experience of meeting, playing with and getting to know 1900 as his story of the mysterious piano player unfolds into a fascinating, often surreal, memoir of an amazing man who never existed, without a country or a hometown, no social security number or any record of his existence outside of the stories others have of meeting him or hearing him play.
‘The Legend of 1900’ is a beautifully photographed film, as is usually the case with Tornatore’s movies. The lighting suggests a playful tone to the film that carries throughout, matching the the personality of 1900’s character. Tim Roth would normally be a mis-cast actor in this role if not for the playful nature of the character and the film itself. Roth is allowed to ever so slightly overplay 1900 as a man that is smart and talented, but still very much in touch with his inner child.
Naturally, there is some great music in ‘The Legend of 1900’ and music plays a significant role in the film as well. The legendary Ennio Morricone created the music, which earned a Golden Globe for Best Score. There is a lengthy scene in the second half of the film that has a wonderful energy to it and serves as a perfect example of the playfulness Roth brings to his character. In this scene, jazz great Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III) challenges 1900 to a piano duel to determine who is the greatest jazz pianist. This competition takes place in the ornate and elaborate ballroom of the ship and turns into a scorching battle of boldness as 1900 essentially mocks Morton in the first two rounds, causing an uproar amidst the spectating crowd who all have their money on 1900. Then in the third and final round, 1900 pulls out all the stops, gently whispers “You asked for this, asshole” to Morton and literally amazes the audience and Morton alike into a paralyzing trance of awe with an incredible, if not slightly improbable display of masterful piano perfection.
‘The Legend of 1900’ offers drama, light comedy, philosophy, great music and visuals. All of that aside, the story itself is what truly makes this film a winner. Tim Roth created a character that adds a nice flavor to this imaginary sea-bound world that would otherwise be dreadfully drab and uptight. Every day is made an adventure by 1900 and we experience the ups and downs of his life as a sort of condensed metaphor of our larger world on land. ‘The Legend of 1900’ is what ‘Titanic’ could have been if it hadn’t dwelled so much on the romance (and ‘1900’ does have some romance) and relied so much on special effects.