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THE Legend OF 1900

The Legend of 1900
Image Entertainment
1998 / Color / 2:1 Anamorphic 16:9 / 123 (160) min. / La Leggenda del pianista sull'oceano / Street Date / June 4, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Clarence Williams III, Bill Nunn, Mélanie Thierry
Cinematography Lajos Koltai
Production Designer Francesco Frigeri
Film Editor Massimo Quaglia
Original Music Ennio Morricone, Roger Waters
Written by Giuseppe Tornatore from the monologue Novecento by Alessandro Baricco
Produced by Marco Chimenz, Laura Fattori, Francesco Tornatore
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This mysterious disc is yet another mesmerizing film from Giuseppe Tornatore, maker of the popular Cinema Paradiso and the even better Everything's Fine. Told in a fanciful style that constantly threatens to edge over into fantasy, The Legend of 1900 features a great performance from Tim Roth, and some of the most interesting musical sequences in a modern movie. Image's disc does justice to this beautifully-produced 1998 gem, which won a Golden Globe for best music score.


A stoker on the luxury liner Virgina, Danny Boodman (Bill Nunn) finds a baby in the year 1900, and gives it that for a name: 1900. As he grows up on the liner, a stateless person with no identity on any shore, 1900 (now Tim Roth) discovers a marvelous musical talent and becomes the ship's star pianist. He lives a strangely charmed existence, soundly defeating a challenge by jazz great Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III) for the title of world's greatest man behind a piano. 1900's best friend, trumpet soloist Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince) tries to get him to leave the ship, at least once, but 1900 never does, even though the vision of a beautiful Girl (Mélanie Thierry) tempts him. And all along, he develops his own unique philosophy for dealing with the world.

Giuseppe Tornatore should make a movie about time travel - the flashbacks in his shows don't so much tell a story as draw us into a past so tempting, we think we've been transported. Young 1900 experiences the fantastic beauty of his beloved ocean liner with wide-open eyes, watching the elegant 1912 passengers through a stained-glass dividing wall that serves as a figurative time barrier into a bygone age. The director's light touch gives us a much more compelling image of a bygone age than does the literal-minded Titanic of the year before.

1900's musical genius is not explained any more than how the abandoned baby got on the boat in the first place. The fable-like story makes him into a kind of Man Without a Country who also is a man without a stable identity. He likes the idea that the world passes him by, 2000 passengers at a time, everyone in transit, nobody but him permanently attached to his world. His fame does grow so that a jealous competitor seeks him out, but the theme of exactly why 1900 is adrift in space and time is not stressed. He's not some Flying Dutchman trying to erase a curse, or anything. As he holds to his self-identity and decides to remain on board forever, he almost seems like one of the ghosts from The Shining. Maybe he's the human child of the boat itself.

No gimmicks are used to make the ship into a character, but we still become attached to it and share Max's sadness as he surveys its final rotted interior, searching for the elusisive nautical semi-poltergeist. We don't learn much about 1900 except his relationship to the Virginia; he jealously guards his talent against challenges and even keeps his music from being heard on a recording, almost like a ghost who wants to be in control of his manifestations.

If this were all there was to The Legend of 1900, it would be interesting, but Tornatore has turned the movie into a musical feast more compelling than most musicals. 1900 plays arrangements of vintage jazz and ragtime, and his own personal music. The movie is transformed by his playing, and Tornatore's direction brings the magic of his performances to life in highly-stylized, emotional scenes that make us as excited about 1900 as are his passenger audiences. 1900 plays rhapsodically, and at one point hammering what appears to be an impossibly intense piece as if possessed or aided by powers greater than himself. Tim Roth either feigns his own playing or special effects have substituted the arms of a real pianist - but the illusion is complete.

In movies, when someone does something musically exceptional, the filmmakers usually have to tell us through the reactions of others, how good it is suppoed to be. We've all seen animated, emotional pianists, and one looks pretty much like another. The problem in The Legend of 1900, showing 1900's skill to be almost superhuman, is not unlike the 'magic haircut' visual problem advanced by William Goldman in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade: If you just show a guy playing a piano (or giving a haircut), how are we supposed to sense what an extraordinary haircut (or performance) is, without being nudged by audience reactions? Tornatore uses some nice tricks to accomplish this. He shows Jelly Roll Morton (a solid performance by ex Mod-Squad-der Clarence Williams III) hammering the keys but never disturbing the ash on his cigarette. 1900's hands appear to multiply on the keyboard, as if the piano were being played supernaturally. When he's finished, the piano strings are so agitated, they can be used to ignite a cigarette!

Pruitt Taylor Vince and Peter Vaughan provide the ghost story - like wraparound that shrouds 1900 in the proper mystery and awe. The movie has only a touch of romance, admiring but staying mostly remote from the one woman on the ship in hundreds of crossings, who catches 1900's eye. He approaches her stand-offishly, and then stalks her in a strange manner that emphasizes once again 1900's similarity to a ghost.

The greatest scene in the picture is when 1900 and Max play (and ride) the piano while it rolls around the ship's storm-tossed ballroom. The giddy tone of the scene makes it work, and when the camera does gyrations to match the swinging chandeliers and shifting furniture, the effect is one of flying. Mac and 1900 are enjoying it all like Peter Pan. The difference between this kind of expressionism, and the jolting, pointless eye candy of recent lauded musicals, is easy to appreciate.

Image's DVD of The Legend of 1900 is a beauty, with a great Technovision (3-perf pulldown, I think) widescreen image. It's originally a Fine Line arthouse release, which raises interesting questions of how it got into Image Entertainment's lineup, but nobody here is complaining.

Extras contain a trailer for this almost unreleased film, some text filmographies, and a music video of the credits tune that features the playing of one 'Edward' Van Halen. The IMDB lists an original Italian running time almost 40 minutes longer ... this version is so entirely satisfying I'm tempted to wonder how more scenes could improve it - unlike Cinema Paradiso, which I'm told is a completely new experience at its original length.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Legend of 1900 rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, Music Video, filmographies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 28, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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