Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Melanie Thierry, Peter Vaughan
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Writing credits: Giuseppe Tornatore
Fine Line Features * 119 minutes
Sometimes I sit through a movie and it feels like one of those old Mad Libs -- cobbled together pieces of every other movie ever made. Then, along comes something like Giuseppe Tornatore's THE LEGEND OF 1900 and restores my faith in the magic of film.
Tornatore has written a highly original fable about a boy born onto an ocean liner, the Virginian (a Cunard/White Star class liner). He is given the moniker "Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900" after the stoker who finds him, the fruit crate in which he's found, and the year of his birth. The boy, whose existence is not documented in any country, grows up on the ship and turns out to be a musical prodigy. Portrayed as an adult by the utterly amazing Tim Roth, he finds that within the enclosed, insular world of the liner, he can be anything he wants, and experience the entire world -- 2000 people at a time.
Thirty years later, Max, a failed jazzman (Pruitt Taylor Vince, of HEAVY fame) pawns his trumpet, only to find that the music store owner just happens to have in his possession the only recording ever made of 1900 playing the piano. As it turns out, the recording was salvaged from a ship scheduled for demolition. Max, convinced that his old friend 1900 may still be on board, attempts to find him and save him, amidst a flashback depicting 1900's unusual life and the two men's friendship.
Anyone who was captivated by TITANIC in 1997, or who has a fascination with those gilded age ocean liners, will find this film a visual feast. Lajos Koltai's cinematography lovingly records a lavishly appointed ship that echoes, while not exactly imitating, Cameron's meticulously recreated White Star liner. A scene in which 1900 takes the brakes of his piano's wheels and lets it roll around the ballroom as the ship pitches back and forth in a storm, is one of the most magical dance sequences ever put on film; even though it contains no dancing. Roth, dapper in a tuxedo, echoes the young Fred Astaire, with his instrument playing the role of Ginger Rogers. The film is an affectionate tribute to the eras before vinyl and polyester, when clothing and furnishings were works of art.
Tim Roth, as 1900, is nothing short of astounding. Less a fleshed-out character than a literary conceit, his 1900 is both a sweet, innocent naïf and a steel-willed professional. A musical "shootout" between 1900 and Jelly Roll Morton (played in a scene-stealing manner by original MOD SQUAD-er Clarence Williams III, who here even LOOKS like Morton) shows a slight edginess that lurks behind 1900's moony eyes. Roth has made a successful career out of playing hoodlums, two-bit drug dealers, and other scuzzballs, and to see him play a creative, romantic, warm-hearted, yet fundamentally sad man like 1900 is a revelation. Pruitt Taylor Vince fares less well. His Max provides a bit too much comic relief; a lot of Chris Farley blended with the affable buffoonery of Robert Wuhl's. Peter Vaughan, last seen as Rupert Everett's butler in AN IDEAL HUSBAND, is predictably excellent as the crusty old music shop owner.
What do you associate with the word "Italian"? Lush, rich, sensual food? Lush, rich, sensual opera? Overly emotional people talking with their hands? THE LEGEND OF 1900 is all of these. A rich, gooey cannoli of a film, its original premise, operatic tragic/romantic themes, beautiful production values and stellar acting combine to create one of the most overlooked gems of the ear. A lovely score by the unlikely duo of Ennio Morricone (known best for his scoring of Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns) and Pink Floyd veteran Roger Waters, of all people, rounds out this cinematic confection.
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