The Legend of 1900 is an unconventional, imaginative fable about a man whose entire universe is a ship.
The story is told by Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a sad and lonely guy who’s giving up his career as a musician. He tells the story as he sells his trumpet to the man at the music shop.
The story begins after the passengers disembark in New York, on the first day of the first month of the new century — 1900, that is — a ship worker (Bill Nunn) finds a baby on the piano in the ship’s lounge. He names the boy 1900 (for short) and raises him in the boiler room of the ship.
One day the boy is found playing the piano. He has a natural talent for it, and so moves out of the boilers to the upper decks of the ship, where he entertains the passengers.
The talent of 1900 (now played by Tim Roth) is enormous. He can play any style of music, even from just a hummed scrap of a tune. One of his favorite styles is jazz, and he earns a sterling reputation as a jazz pianist. Some say he’s even better than Jelly Roll Morton.
Jelly Roll (played with fierce pride by Clarence Williams) takes this challenge seriously. Since 1900 refuses to set foot on land, Jelly Roll books a trip across the Atlantic, just to meet this man — and to put him in his place. In one of the most memorable scenes, Jelly Roll and 1900 have a musical duel.
In another episode, 1900 comes as close as he ever will to falling in love. As he plays a ballad for a new recording, he notices a girl on the other side of the porthole. The song becomes his love for her.
Two of the best things about The Legend of 1900 are clear in these scenes. The first is that, because the story is told as a story, the movie is allowed to take on an imaginative, slightly-exaggerated, storybook feel. The exaggeration stops well short of zaniness. There is merely enough to give the characters a larger-than-life charm. (That’s something Tornatore did well in Cinema Paradiso, too)
The second is that Tornatore acknowledges that music is important to the movie, and lets it play for a long time. This is worth mentioning because a lot of directors don’t show music scenes for very long – they’re hard to film in a way that’s not boring. (Recall Jane Horrocks’ “evening” of music in Little Voice. It was compressed down to about 5 minutes of screen time, even though it was the film’s whole raison d’être. A more recent example is the penultimate scene in Music of the Heart, where no composition gets more than about 30 seconds of screen time.)
Ennio Morricone wrote most of the music for this movie, and he was the perfect choice. Morricone’s music often seems weird and unconventional — as though he had no formal training in how music is “supposed” to be. (Think of the screamed and quacked voices in the theme from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.) 1900’s music isn’t that far-out, but Morricone’s unconventional-yet-functional style is perfect for the character of 1900, who is self-taught and musically isolated.
The acting by Roth and Vince is impeccable. Although Roth’s part was smaller than it at first seems, he captured the shy, fragile charm of 1900. He wasn’t listed in the music credits at the end, but he knew enough piano to look like he was really doing it. And even though Vince has acted in a dozen movies, he’s never had a part this big. Vince has darting eyes, which might seem a hindrance, but they add to the pathos and sympathy of his character.
One final trait of The Legend of 1900 is worth mentioning: the cinematography by Lajos Koltai. A few scenes in particular are noteworthy. One is the fluid, energetic photography of the great piano duel. As I said, most filmmakers can’t shoot music performances without making them boring. Tornatore was able to make his performances last longer by letting Koltai shoot some great stuff.
The other great-looking scene was of the first meeting between 1900 and Max. Max was seasick and 1900 had the perfect cure. I won’t say more, except that the cinematography in this scene won me over completely.
Roger Ebert gave The Legend of 1900 a so-so review because he didn’t completely understand the character of 1900. I can’t say I understood him any better, but that’s not what this movie was saying to me.
The innocent, charming fable is supported so well by the music, the cinematography, and the manner of storytelling, that I can’t see The Legend of 1900 as anything but a success.