"Legend of 1900"

Giuseppe Tornatore's tale of a ship-bound piano virtuoso drowns in its own treacle.

By Jeff Stark
Published November 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

"The Legend of 1900" has a fantastic premise: A boy orphaned on an ocean liner makes a family of the crew, grows up to be a great piano player and experiences the outside world only through the ship's passengers -- 2,000 people at a time.

The story, based on a monologue by Italian author Alessandro Baricco, is at once a fable about innocence and inspiration and a childlike fantasy lived out by adults. ("Hey, let's pretend that the clubhouse is a boat, and we'll never leave.") It could have been a fine tale about brave, courageous immigrants, or about how music has the power to transport us to faraway places or about the power of storytelling. But it tries to be each of these things -- and fails at them all.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, who made the sappy Oscar-winner "Cinema Paradiso" (1990), coats his first English-language movie with a 50-gallon drum of Kayro syrup. Damp, cobblestone streets reflect glowing gaslights; beautiful girls huddle under umbrellas in the rain; the eyes of tattered immigrants well up with tears at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. Visual clichis and shoddy storytelling reduce the movie to dumb sentimentality: What should be Degas ends up Norman Rockwell.

The story begins on New Year's Day, 1900, when deckhand and coal-shoveler Danny Boodman (Bill Nunn), finds a baby boy in a lemon crate on top of a piano. Beaming as if he's just found a bauble, Danny decides to keep the little whelp and christens him Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900. Danny Sr. dies in terrible accident, and the kid -- who becomes known as 1900 -- grows up working with the ship's crew.

One night, the young 1900 sneaks out from the engine room and sees someone playing piano; pretty soon he's plinking pretty sonatas on the grand. He gets better. The next thing we know, the young boy has grown up to be Tim Roth, who plays the older 1900 like a shivering puppy. He's at once shy and removed and the consummate listener and pal, capable of being swept away in the moment.

It's Tornatore's fault, not Roth's, that 1900 spells out his every emotion and thought in cheap dialogue. Roth is capable of carrying the part, but he's working against a director who seems intent on sabotaging any hint of subtlety.

Eventually 1900 starts his own band. A brash, young trumpet player named Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince, the fat guy from "Heavy") joins up. He and 1900 become pals. In one dizzy, fantastical scene, the two of them go for a ride around a room on his wheeled piano in high seas. It looks like fun, even if it defies the laws of physics. There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

1900 becomes an amazing piano player. Really amazing. He plays so fast, it's as if he had multiple sets of hands. To drive that point home, 1900's hands blur across the keyboard. Sometimes through the magic of digital editing, there are actually six of his hands on the keyboard. The score of the film, written by master movie composer Ennio Morricone, is wonderful. It's a shame that Tornatore portrays it as a feat of supernatural, almost freakish ability.

1900 is such a fine player because he instantly assimilates the emotions, mannerisms and cultures of those around him, from the steerage-class Italians to the high-class snoots. Again, it's an excellent idea in theory, but one that seems cheap in front of Tornatore's lens. Every nuance of this idea is shattered by thick, expository dialogue and repetition. In one scene, 1900 composes on the fly for several characters during one of his nightly sets. But then, again and again, he plays for the immigrants in the hull, the roiling ocean and so on and on.

His legend grows on the sea as well as on land. In fact, he's become so well known that Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), who claims to have invented jazz, comes on board to challenge 1900 to a piano duel -- sort of like a jazz version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

The film cuts clumsily between the past and the present (not the 1999 present, but a considerable period of time after 1900). At this later date, Max is a down-and-out jazzman who needs to hock his horn for a few scrappy dollars. We can tell by Max's slumped shoulders and drowsy eyes that he'd rather not sell the horn. He asks the crotchety old man behind the counter if he can give his horn one last blow.

It's a pretty tune. The shopkeeper ambles over to the Victorola and slaps down what sounds like a slab of concrete. Turns out, it's the same song. Max wants to know where he found the record. He pulled it out of some junk piano, he says, from a big ol' ship that they're getting ready to sink out in the harbor.

Max believes that 1900 is certainly still on that hunk of rusting scrap metal. Max starts his story. Cut back to the boat during its glory days. It looks a lot like the Titanic. Remarkably like the Titanic. So much like the Titanic that a cynic might say that Tornatore is using it as some sort of memory trigger. We know that big, epic stories happen on ships like the Titanic, because we've all seen "Titanic," a movie vastly superior to the one we're watching.

In what's supposed to be the film's most poignant moment, a man comes on board to record 1900. Like all record-company men, he promises him fame and fortune. Focusing on a young girl outside his porthole, 1900 begins to play. But he is uneasy with the idea of his music going anywhere without him. If he won't leave the boat, why should his music? He tries to give the master copy of the record to the beauty he recorded it for, but can't reach her in time. He smashes it into pieces. Apparently, Max stashes the pieces in the piano, which is how the old man has come across them.

At one point, 1900 tries to leave the ship, presumably to find his fair-haired maiden. He can't do it. For this reason -- back to the present now -- Max assumes that 1900 is still camped out on the soon-to-be demolished boat. The questions: Will he find him? If so, will he be able to save him? Do we care?

I won't spoil it with the answers, but I bet you can guess at least two out of three.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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