Saturday, July 7, 2012

Stan Warnow's DECONSTRUCTING DAD: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott (né Harry Warnow)

The DNA that makes for genius doesn't seem to kick in much where parenting is concerned. Or so history tells us. I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule, but Raymond Scott (born Harry Warnow, of Russian-Jewish parents), the music man most probably famous as the orchestra leader of the mid-century television  program Your Hit Parade (1950-59), was certainly not among those exceptions. The documentary that his son Stan Warnow has put together about his father's rather amazing life and character is a fascinating one, full of history and memorabilia, invention and genius, and people we knew in one manner (the late Dorothy Collins) now shown in quite another. It's a shame that Miss Collins died long before this film was made. Her viewpoint might have proven rather broadening.

Filmmaker Warnow, at left, and his sister Carolyn Makover have a number of interesting and sad things to say about their dad and their lives with him (mostly without him). As Carolyn makes clear, he was an absentee parent, even when he was in the same room with them. As much as they appreciate his genius, and I think they do, the heartache of a missing parent is always present in the documentary, hovering quietly around its edges. This could make for some heavy going, but because Stan has filled the film with such surprising information, plus the same kind of energy his dad must have had for music and invention, these 98 minutes mostly fly by. Further, his use of talking heads -- while kept to a very few -- combines family, fans and music professionals in a manner that weaves Scott's story and talents together quite interestingly. And because the filmmaker's timeline, rather than flipping back and forth always moves ahead, we know where we are -- on one level, at least -- at every point along the way.

The character of Raymond Scott (he's shown at right, below, at bottom and on poster, top) is certainly a complex one, full of ironies and hypocrisies, along with brilliance and creativity. A musician/composer control freak who was almost pathologically shy, he insisted on using jazz musicians and yet wouldn't allow them to improvise once he'd gotten the kind of sound he wanted. As gifted as Scott was musically, he seemed to love equipment and technology above all else (shades of Glenn Gould).

In your standard modern-day musician documentary or docudrama, at the center is often, if not almost always, a fellow or gal with substance-abuse problems -- from the hero of Walk the Line to the latest Hank Williams movie that opened a couple of weeks back. Not here. This guy was clean but, in his way, mean. Foremost, he was a man whom his children saw little of and knew even less. So Warnow's movie becomes a compiling of facts about the man, his life and interests that tell us a great deal, while never getting close to the core of the individual -- even though we hear from those family members who were "closest" to him and other musicians (multi-Oscar-winner John Williams, below, and Mark Mothersbaugh, further below) who admired him profusely. This is not surprising, as I suspect Raymond Scott/Harry Warnow never got close enough to himself (nor had any interest in doing so) to achieve what we might call self-knowledge.

A Jew who turned his back on his own culture -- he changed his name, got a nose job, and took, for his second wife, a shiksa (at least this young woman, known at the time as America's Sweetheart certainly looked the role). Yet Scott, as a bandleader, insisted on hiring the best musicians, no matter what their color, and consequently had himself the first integrated band in American broadcast history.

His music was clever and original -- popular, too -- predating other, later stuff that seems to have been copied from Scott's work. Along the way, we get a wonderful animated short by Scott SanGiacomo, showing us how he and his band "composed" his song, War Dance of the Wooden Indians, along with some nifty vintage footage of the few times Scott and his musical group appeared on film. Without even realizing it, you'll probably recognize much of Scott's music because it was used so often in the old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.

When the filmmaker gets into Scott's work as an inventor (this was the guy who made the first synthesizer -- and even mentored the now more famous Robert Moog), the movie grows almost amazing. To think that Scott knew so much and was able to do so much, and yet his own paranoia and unwillingness to share prevented him from moving ahead. For a time -- this came as quite a shock to me -- he was hired by Berry Gordy at Motown (Gordy purchased Scott's "Electronium," above, a machine that allowed one to simultane-ously compose and perform), which should have ensured his success. But, no: He was let go from the company some time later.

Oddly, even as Scott's health was failing, his reputation was back on the rise, due to some of the men -- music historians and musicians -- who helped Warnow with this original, fine and finally quite moving documentary. DECONSTRUCTING DAD: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott opens this coming Friday, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. I don't know of any other theatrical playdates around the country, but to order the film, along with its host of "extras," on DVD, click here.

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