A scattershot docu about the late, great musical iconoclast Raymond Scott by his quasi-estranged son, “Deconstructing Dad” reps a long-overdue filmic reclamation of the largely overlooked “novelty” jazzman and innovator. Though the pic meanders somewhat in the absence of a clear throughline, the focus on Scott’s music and electronic experimentation remains strong throughout, thanks to an eclectic roster of musicians and scholars and a generous sampling of his compositions. Warnow’s filial p.o.v., largely conspicuous by its cluelessness, ultimately proves less revelatory. Bowing July 13 at Gotham’s Quad, the pic could find comfortable gigs on the smallscreen.
The docu harks back to the rediscovery of Scott in the late ’80s and early ’90s, spearheaded by many of the film’s interviewees — including John Williams, Jeff Winner, Mark Mothersbaugh and DJ Spooky — as his music again became accessible through the re-release of several of his albums.
Scott occupies a unique place in ’30s American music that many aficionados see as comparable to Frank Zappa’s experimental work in the ’60s rock scene. Certainly Scott’s compositions, with their offbeat, quirky sounds, weird titles (“War Dance for Wooden Indians,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals”), frantic rhythms and constant tonal and tempo shifts, resemble no one else’s of that era, yet proved immediately and immensely popular.
Scott’s Quintet during the ’30s, and Big Band during the ’40s, performed regularly on radio and television (he served as a musical director at CBS) and were featured in several movies — until Scott quit in disgust when the group was asked to don powdered wigs and satin waistcoats for a shoot. During the ’50s, he took over big brother Mark Warnow’s gig as bandleader for “Your Hit Parade” after Warnow’s untimely death. Rare kinescope excerpts from many of these appearances enliven the docu.
Even when Scott’s name was virtually forgotten, his music was ubiquitous — immediately recognizable to anyone who ever watched a Warner Bros. cartoon, since musical director Carl Stalling sampled compositions like “Restless Night Aboard an Ocean Liner” and “Toy Trumpet” countless times, attracted by their strong descriptiveness and complex relationship to movement. Director Warnow syncs Scott’s striking “The Penguin” to actual footage of penguins almost as successfully as Stalling tied “Powerhouse” to crazy assembly-line imagery.
The last section of “Deconstructing” examines Scott’s myriad electronic discoveries. Fascinated by the musical possibilities of technology, he recorded everything from telephone conversations with his future wife to each rehearsal, performance or odd musical doodling. Warnow credits his father with the invention of a proto-synthesizer, and traces his influence on Moog, on the one hand, to Motown, on the other.
On a personal level, Warnow tells a fascinating tale of Scott’s involvement with a 12-year-old protegee who lived with the family, and later became his wife and a star of “Your Hit Parade,” that has echoes of Svengali and Woody Allen. Much of the docu laments the workaholic Scott’s lack of parenting skills or even interest in parenting. By dint of repetition, this self-pitying focus begins to feel analogous to complaining that Bach should have spent more time with his 22 kids and less time composing.