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 V.22 No.10 | March 7 - 13, 2013 

Film Review

Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott

Intimate biopic finds cinematic son hunting musical father

This photo alone is enough to qualify Scott for coolest dad ever.
This photo alone is enough to qualify Scott for coolest dad ever.

Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott

Directed by Stanley Warnow

Most documentary filmmakers go out of their way to not insert themselves into their own films. Documentary filmmaking has a certain reportorial air about it, and there’s an unspoken barrier that exists between documentarian and subject. Get too close and viewers might feel you’ve lost your objectivity. That’s not a problem that seems to concern filmmaker Stanley Warnow. After all, the subject of his film Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott is his father.

Ladies and gentlemen, the magnificence of the Electronium.
Ladies and gentlemen, the magnificence of the Electronium.

From frame one, Warnow has little choice but to insert himself into the story. And why not? He’s part of it. As a result, Deconstructing Dad is half biopic and half family therapy session. Warnow had little contact with his father past the age of seven. His most vivid memories are of a man who popped up on his television set once a week conducting the orchestra on the popular show “Your Hit Parade.” Warnow knew comparatively little about his own famous father’s life story. As Warnow’s sister puts it, dad “wasn’t around, and when he was he wasn’t.” Warnow’s journey of cinematic enlightenment becomes our own. And what a fascinating journey it is. Scott, though known by only a handful of cult aficionados these days, was an amazing man: a conductor, a composer, a musician, an inventor and a pioneer in so many forms of music it’s hard to catalogue.

As the film lays out in vivid archival footage, Scott started as the leader of a wildly popular quintet in the early 1930s. His music was hard to categorize: classical instrumental compositions done with the tradecraft of jazz music. His instantly accessible and maddeningly catchy tunes were pop music decades before the term even existed. For example, you may think you don’t know his trademark tune “Powerhouse,” but you do. You’ve heard it countless times over the course of your life. Much of that is due to the fact that Warner Bros. started licensing his music in the 1940s to accompany their popular “Looney Tunes” cartoons. The peppy music you associate with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote & the Road Runner sprang from the febrile mind of Raymond Scott.

It was a match made in heaven. Scott’s instrumental compositions called up instant visual images. When he wrote a song called “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House,” you couldn’t help but imagine the scenario in your head. When he penned a tune called “The Penguin,” the waddling beat immediately brought to mind the humorous gait of an Antarctic waterfowl. The cartoons not only kept Scott’s music alive for decades after it had passed through the charts, it created a cult following that endures to this day.

Hunting down and speaking with Scott fans of all stripes, Warnow finds an enduring reverence for his father. Academy Award-hogging composer John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars)—whose father played drums in Scott’s quintet—is still in awe of the man’s skill. Famed turntablist DJ Spooky speaks of Scott as the original remixer. Mark Mothersbaugh, founding member of DEVO, treats Scott like a music industry legend. Many people compare the man to Frank Zappa, that other uncategorizable music industry rebel who was so ahead of his time. Some try to explain it in obscure music college terms involving innovative scale changes and the like. But the bottom line is this: The guy has some inescapable something.

Thankfully, there are stacks and stacks of archival material on Scott to enter into evidence. Scott was also an amateur engineer and always tinkered with the latest technology. As early as the 1930s, he was recording telephone conversations, improv sessions, song demos, lectures, everything he had a hand in. Warnow travels to the Raymond Scott Archives at the University of Missouri (yup, the man has an archive) and unearths tons of historic material. There are appearances by Scott and his group in old 20th Century Fox musicals. There are interviews by legendary newspan Edward R. Murrow. What emerges is a clear picture of a man who loved his work, appreciated his fame, but hated the spotlight. In the 1950s, Scott took over as the conductor on the popular music series “Your Hit Parade.” Every week, he was beamed into thousands of homes across America. The guy was incredibly famous—and, unless you’re a major music geek, you’ve probably never heard his name before.

Deconstructing Dad is a constantly fascinating portrait of a man you really want to know more about. Every narrative turn brings another “I can’t believe how interesting this guy was” revelation. Even after his third career revival as host of “Your Hit Parade,” Scott had more up his sleeve. In later life, he became obsessed with the concept of electronically generated music. His homemade inventions—the Clavivox, the Electronium—directly prefigured the creation of the Moog synthesizer by Bob Moog. In fact, Moog met Scott in the ’50s, and they worked together designing various pioneering circuits which Moog would later employ in his groundbreaking analog keyboard.

Deconstructing Dad isn’t a particularly elegant film. Warnow is a trained editor, not a practiced director. (He assembled the epic 1970 documentary Woodstock as well as Milos Forman’s 1979 version of Hair.) In one sequence, Warnow juggles the camera back and forth with his own son, answering questions about his relationship with Scott. It’s clunky, but the very home movie clunkiness reveals something about the closeness between Warnow and his own offspring. If the film has a handmade, shaggy-dog charm to it, it only enhances the overall message. Deconstructing Dad isn’t a muckraking exposé of broken families and artistic temperaments—it’s a thoughtful show-and-tell piece put together by a distant but devoted son who can’t help but be dazzled by his dad’s rampant genius. Neither can we.

Note: Director Stanley Warnow will attend the 8 p.m. screenings at Guild Cinema and will speak about his experience.
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