"The Legend of 1900" is a 1998 movie starring Tim Roth
and Pruitt Taylor Vince
and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
. It is a turn-of-the-century fable that explores the themes of belonging, and knowing one's place in the world.
The story unfolds as a flashback; after hearing an old recording of his friend 1900 (Roth) at a music store located in post-World War II England, Max (Vince) tells the story to the store's owner...
The unfortunately-named "Danny Boodman T.D. Lemons 1900," or 1900 for short, was abandoned as an infant on the SS Virginian, a trans-Atlantic cruise ship. He was discovered and raised by one of the ship's stokers, Danny Boodman (Sr.). 1900, named in part after the year of his birth, grew up on the ship. After Danny Sr.'s accidental death, an eight-year old 1900 begins to earn his keep playing the piano.
1900 befriends a new arrival on the ship, a trumpeter named Max Cohn. From time to time, Max encourages 1900 to leave the ship to explore the world (1900 has never set foot on dry land), and to take advantage of his gift for music. Even though he confines himself to the ship, word of 1900's talent for the piano grows, earning him both a challenge from jazz piano legend Jelly Roll Morton and the attention of record producers.
It is during the recording session that we are introduced to the movie's McGuffin, the character of The Girl (Mélanie Thierry). While cutting his demo record, 1900 spots The Girl through a porthole. Her beauty inspires him, and he improvises a beautiful song. After the record is finished, 1900 refuses to let the record producers keep the master, so he can give it to The Girl. His shyness (and later xenophobia) gets the best of him, and he loses the chance to present her with his gift before she leaves. In a fit of anger, 1900 shatters the record and throws it away. Later, 1900 attempts to leave the ship to hunt her down, but cannot get past the midway point of the gangplank.
The flashback ends with Max's departure from the ship in 1933, leaving 1900 behind. Through Max's telling of the story (first to the music store owner, later to dockworkers), we learn that he rescued and hid the fragments of the master, which were then discovered by the store owner when he purchased the Virginian's old piano. Max learns from the owner that the Virginian is slated for demolition, and he fears that 1900 may still be aboard.
I was underwhelmed by this movie. Roth, usually an outstanding actor, seems to "mail it in" for much of his performance (save for an emotional farewell scene near the end of the movie). We don't see any of the wicked joy he showed in Rob Roy or the nervous energy seen in Pulp Fiction. Roth does turn it on for his piano duel with Jelly Roll (Clarence Williams III), but it's Williams and Vince that steal this scene. Of all the actors, it is Vince (a classic "that guy") that lends the most consistent and enjoyable work. Thierry has an easy job in the film, having few lines and little more responsibility than to look pretty.
It is the music that does the most to redeem this movie. The Golden Globe-winning score was written by the legendary Ennio Morricone (famous for scoring several spaghetti westerns), and it is here that the film hinges. More than half of Roth's scenes place him behind the piano -- and everything else seems like filler until the next performance scene starts. Without inspired music the entire movie's premise falls flat.
Cast (partial listing):
Tim Roth 1900
Pruitt Taylor Vince Max
Clarence Williams III Jelly Roll Morton
Bill Nunn Danny Boodmann
Mélanie Thierry The Girl
Easton Gage The Young 1900 I
Cory Buck The Young 1900 II
Peter Vaughan Music Store Owner
Niall O'Brien Harbor Chief
Alberto Vasquez Mexican Machinist (as Alberto Vazquez)
Gabriele Lavia Farmer
Vernom Nurse Band Leader
Harry Ditson Captain
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) - http://us.imdb.com/Credits?0120731