Rating: 4/5Raymond Scott was always a difficult man to know, a contradictory musician-inventor who created innovative and unique works, often while deliberately thwarting the free artistic expression of his fellow musicians. Despite his peerless contributions to the field of avant-garde music, in his day he was best known as the conductor for the middlebrow television show “Your Hit Parade.” Nowadays, Scott is mostly recognized for cartoon music, though he never composed specifically for animated shows.
While his reputation is currently in the midst of a lengthy revitalization, his life and his inventions are surprisingly elusive, even to his own family, as he was an absent father to his children. Eldest son Stan Warnow, a film editor, began work on this documentary, Deconstructing Dad, several years ago in an effort to learn more about the father he barely knew.
Warnow takes us into the enormous Raymond Scott archives, fascinating not just because of what they hold, but by their sheer scope and magnitude. Dozens of shelves at the University of Missouri – Kansas City are crammed with records Scott made over his entire lifetime, not just performances but radio interviews, rehearsals, lectures and even phone calls to his girlfriend, recorded on 78 RPM records with technology that was state of the art for the 1930s.
Scott’s interest in buying the hot new technology quickly developed into inventing his own. Ahead of his time in electronic music composition and invention, he was so paranoid that he would hide his inventions for fear they would be stolen; the documentary speculates that this paranoia kept him from sharing his work with the academic world as well. The end result is that almost no one knew about his technological feats, though at the same time he is credited with being hugely influential. That seems an essential contradiction, one the documentary never acknowledges.
Deconstructing Dad features numerous interviews with people close to him, both family and fellow electronica experts and musicians, as well as modern-day performers and students of his music. And of course we also have Raymond Scott’s own words through the copious interviews he recorded, though he notably says very little about his personal life, probably because he knew just how much of a mess it was.
Discussion of Scott’s deliberate obscuring of his Jewish heritage gives insight into the social expectations of the time. Early on, he changed his name from Harry Warnow to Raymond Scott, though his children and wife from his first marriage did not. He said it was to save his bandleader brother from charges of nepotism, though it was obviously also to hide the fact that he was Jewish. He had a nose job and even asked his Jewish wife to do the same. She refused.
Scott was a man who did not want to be lonely but also didn’t want to, or perhaps wasn’t able to, put any effort toward making and maintaining relationships, his efforts instead going toward controlling everything around him. We see this in discussion of his relationship with Raymond Scott Quintette members, and also through his first wife’s side of the story. One gets the impression that the marriage deteriorated as so many other showbiz relationships do, where the first wife, strong and with a life of her own, is discarded in pursuit of a new wife who better complemented his Hollywood goals.
Though the tone of this documentary is frank, it is mostly good-natured, revelatory and celebratory. Interviewees do not hesitate to discuss the difficult times – Scott’s treatment of his quintette, his affair with a very young girl or his neglect of his family, and when they do, they inadvertently reveal that only casual acquaintances would call his behavior eccentric. Those close to him knew his behavior was borderline abusive. Warnow, who also narrates, uses a humorous and slightly sarcastic tone in reaction to disturbing revelations. This joviality is only on the surface of the film, however, and belies a distinct undercurrent of retroactive — and probably justified — punishment for an absent father and difficult man, whose actions are so often excused as merely the eccentricities of genius.