The Legend of 1900

Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring: Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Bill Nunn, Peter Vaughan, Clarence Williams III.
MPAA Rating: R for language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
January 24, 2000

I saw this film on Saturday night, and since then it has won a Golden Globe for Ennio Morricone's score. He didn't even show up to accept it, and I didn't have time to even consider his chances. It has barely been distributed, and I just saw its second and last showing in the state of New Jersey. According to The Internet Movie Database, it had its Oscar engagement in 1998, so its eligibility has probably run out with the Academy. But it is clear why the award was deserved: the music made the film.

After a 1900 New Year's celebration on the oceanliner Virginian, coal shoveler Danny Boodmann (Bill Nunn) found a newborn baby in the ballroom. For lack of a better name, he called the boy 1900. He grows up to be a virtuoso piano player, spending every moment of his life on the ship. As an adult, 1900 (Tim Roth) has seen the world, but has never touched terra firma. The ship has basically adopted him, and exploits his talents by having him lead the ship's jazz band.

While the band was being assembled, a trumpeter named Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince) joins the group, and quickly becomes close friends with 1900. They spend several years playing together, but Max eventually leaves. Years later, Max discovers that the Virginian is being destroyed, and he believes that 1900 is still aboard. He tells the story of the legendary pianist to several people, to convince them to let him look for 1900 before they blow the ship up.

The Legend of 1900 is the first English-language film by director Giuseppe Tornatore, who gained worldwide acclaim for his 1988 film Cinema Paradiso. Technically, it is an Italian film, but most of the cast is American and British. Whatever you call it, the film is an international effort that beautifully captures life on the ocean. Certainly, the scenes in Titanic were very impressive, but Tornatore did an excellent job with a mere $9 million budget.

The heart of the film is the music, and it is remarkably wonderful. I assume that Roth doesn't play these pieces, because they are superhuman feats of keyboard mastery (and probably duets, in some cases). The scenes of the piano playing were just as remarkable, especially a scene where 1900 and Max sit at a piano as it rolls around the ballroom floor during a storm. Unfortunately, there are several scenes that aren't as captivating, and the film is slightly overlong as a result. Then again, the Italian version is supposed to be more than a half-hour longer, but I think they probably made some much-needed cuts.

Hopefully, the Golden Globe should get this film proper distribution. Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown just went wide, and it is also about a legendary -- but fictional -- jazz virtuoso. It is unlikely that many theatre owners would want to play both of these films, so it will be interesting to see which one will win out.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
La leggenda del pianista sull'oceano (1998) (Italian title -- "The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean")

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The Legend Of 1900: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan