Based on E.L. Doctorow’s bestseller, RAGTIME (1981) details the interweaving plots of several famous (Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, Harry Houdini) and fictional characters in 1906 New York City.
While not wholly successful, the film does contain a star-making performance by Howard Rollins, Jr. as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a black piano player who must resort to violence to seek revenge for the injustices done to him and his fiancé, Sarah (Debbie Allen). The film is also notable for James Cagney’s final screen performance as Chief of Police Waldo Rhinelander. But the movie lives on in the hearts of film music lovers for Randy Newman’s melodic score.
Newman had scored the 1971 cult film, COLD TURKEY, but he was better known as a singer and songwriter. Newman’s career remained on the fringe until the ubiquitous hit, “Short People,” in 1977.
Given the title of the film, you might suspect a score full of Joplin-esque rags, but “there isn’t much,” said Newman. “It didn’t call for it. They weren’t dealing with it. ‘Happy white people’ was a different kind of thing. The life of the piano player had just a couple things that called for it.” The nostalgic tone of the film is set by the melancholy violin and piano waltz that plays over the main credits.
The melody is also heard over the end credits in the Oscar-nominated song, “One More Hour,” for which Newman also wrote the lyrics. The song is sung by Jennifer Warnes, who would become the premier singer of Oscar songs during the 80s. (Following the Oscar-winning “It Goes Like It Goes” from NORMA RAE (1979), her vocals can also be heard in the Oscar-winning duets “Up Where We Belong” from AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from DIRTY DANCING.)
RAGTIME would provide the harmonic basis for much of Newman’s later scores, even when it wasn’t necessarily appropriate. But that shouldn’t detract from the rich melodic tapestry of the score.
RAGTIME has been a favorite of mine ever since I first heard that haunting theme in 1981. It took Newman 18 nominations before he won an Oscar in 2000, for the song “If I Didn’t Have You” from MONSTERS, INC. If it had been up to me, Newman would have won his Oscar right off the bat for this melodically rich score, beating Vangelis’s far more popular CHARIOTS OF FIRE.