Universal Pictures owed a large debt to Scott Joplin – whose ragtime music was a key factor in the enormous success of The Sting – and the studio paid back the debt with Scott Joplin, a biopic starring Billy Dee Williams originally intended for TV.
Williams is fine, and the film has a lot of verve and intensity, but the story of Joplin’s life is so grim it makes the film a real downer.
Scott Joplin is buoyant fun for the first half but then becomes a harrowing ordeal when Joplin learns he has syphilis. He turns into a desperate wreck, forsaking his popular ragtime tunes to write an opera, ‘Treemonisha,’ which wasn’t performed until 1975.
But the second half of the film makes too many wobbly jumps over periods of Joplin’s life to satisfy dramatically.