I first heard about The Legend of 1900 when I working as a Teaching Assistant for a small college in Zhuhai China. My introduction to the film was watching the 16 minute piano duel between the inventor of Jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, (played by Clarence Williams III) and the ocean-born pianist Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900, (played by Tim Roth.)
The piano duel is cinematically fantastic. The camera motion, the acting, and the subtext all combine perfectly to create an emotionally charged fight scene.
With an introduction like that, I wanted to know more about the film. Where does it start? What is it about? What happens after the piano duel?
The Legend of 1900 is a long film. Clocking in at 2 hours and 46 minutes the movie sets a slow and methodical pace, but a pace that is entirely appropriate for the story.
The story is told via flashbacks by Max Tooney (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a trumpet player who was good friends with the legendary pianist. Found abandoned on the streamliner Virginian, as a baby, 1900 was adopted by a coal shoveling sailor and eventually the rest of the crew.
At the age of eight Danny Boodman T. D. Lemon 1900 discovers his gift for music and begins playing the piano. He spends his life playing piano on the ship, never once setting foot on dry ground.
The film has it’s share of laughs, but the overarching tone is one of melancholy. After proving his piano prowess over the inventor of Jazz, 1900 is offered a record deal. When he hears his own music played back, he understands that people will be able to hear his songs without him and he backs out of the agreement, stealing the master recording and later destroying it.
He plans to leave the ship, but after making it halfway down the gangplank, he turns back, destined to remain on the ship forever.
The film ends with a touching scene when Max finds 1900 on the rusted remains of the Virginian, shortly before it’s scrapped at sea and blown up. 1900 explains to Max that the city he saw (New York) has no end, contains too many choices, and is far too big for him. The ship is his home, he was born there, he lived there, and he will die there.
As far as movies go, I would give this one a thumbs sideways. In many regards it is a fantastic film. The story is told as if it is a legend. Throughout the film I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Max was making it all up. Even as the credits rolled, I could see that being a plausible theory.
The biggest challenge this movie faces is its length. It’s certainly an epic tale, but for a film lacking the fast paced action cuts of today’s box office hits, it’s a tough sell.
Yet, if you don’t mind slower films and thought provoking legends, this is definitely a film for you.