Ragtime Movie Review

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The late 1970s and early 1980s were heavy times for cinema. This was the era of the majestic miniseries: Roots, Rich Man Poor Man, The Thorn Birds, Shogun. Why, if your film couldn't stretch over at least four hours, it probably wasn't worth telling.

The miniseries mentality reached into the theatrical world as well. And so Milos Forman ended up with Ragtime, a sprawling book about American life in the early 1900s, filled with stories of racism, sudden upward mobility, abandonment, psychosis, and of course that good old ragtime music. The result is a film that sprawls well over two hours yet can't ever decide where the best story lies. Is it a tale of a murderous husband who avenges the harsh treatment of his former-chorus girl wife? The story of an abandoned black baby who winds up in the arms of a wealthy white family? No, Ragtime eventually focuses on a black piano player (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) who rises through the ranks of the ragtime scene, only to find bitter racism and resentment waiting for him on the other side. He ultimately winds up holed up in a library with one of the characters from another story in the film. Some of this is based on real events, most is not.

Ragtime earned eight Oscar nominations but ultimately won none of them. Most notable, oddly, is a minor character in the film who nonetheless earned top billing -- James Cagney, in his final film appearance and a return to the screen after a 20 year absence. Holy crap! Cagney is maybe the only reason to see this film, his weathered face nearly unrecognizable but that voice wholly unmistakable.

As for the rest of the film, it's a jumbled and largely uninteresting mess, and Forman really ought to have known better. By way of trivia, Robert Altman was originally onboard to direct the movie, and the mind reels at what he might have done with this raw material.

Finally available on home video, Forman offers a commentary track on the DVD. You'll also find one deleted scene on the disc.

Cast & Crew

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Ragtime Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 1981

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