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More fiction than fact, but the music makes it worthwhile
The man who gave us the Maple Leaf Rag and the Entertainer, Scott Joplin, once said that he would not become known until fifty years after his death.
He wasn't off by much--it took fifty-six. In 1973, Marvin Hamlisch used the then-largely unknown Joplin's music in the movie "The Sting," spurring a ragtime revival and a renewed interest in Joplin specifically. Joplin's work received long-overdue attention from music scholars, and he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer for his body of work, some fifty known rags, waltzes, marches--and one opera, Treemonisha.
This movie rode the wave of his renewed popularity, but plays so loose with the facts of his life that we end up knowing little more about him. Billy Dee Williams is a superb Joplin, as is Art Carney as his publisher, John Stark. But the movie either ignores or glosses over certain details, such as Joplin's longtime friendship and collaboration with Scott Hayden. Hayden is not even mentioned in the film, which prefers to focus on Joplin and the tragic, unsung musical genius Louis Chauvin, who Joplin barely knew. Chauvin in his prime would compose beautiful rags on the spot, never to be heard again, because he could not write them down. The movie implies they were friends from the earliest days, which they were not. They did collaborate on one piece, "Heliotrope Bouquet", when Chauvin was dying and no longer able to play--this the movie gets right.
It also touches on the growing animosity between Joplin and Stark, but this too is sugarcoated. The movie implies they reconciled, which in reality never happened.
Yet the movie is worth seeing if only for one thing--the wonderful, brooding music of a man for whom recognition was long overdue.
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