DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Deconstructing Dad (2010)

In the music technology area, Scott created many different electronic instruments in an effort to come up with one which would create his music automatically for him.

Published on January 31, 2011

Deconstructing Dad (2010)

Deconstructing Dad (2010)

“The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott”
Documentary by Stan Warnow
Studio: Waterfall Films [www.scottdoc.com]
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Extras: Deleted and alternate scenes, Bio of filmmaker
Length: 98 minutes
Rating: *****

If I’d pursued making film documentaries in the 60s and 70s, one of the first I would have done would have been on the fascinating known-but-unknown composer Raymond Scott.  However, Stan Warnow, who made this terrific documentary, had one major advantage going for him – he is Scott’s son! As a child he saw little of his father, who was always away or working in his studio at home, and his father soon left the family entirely. But later he ran into people who were fans of Scott’s music and technologies, and he ended up creating this exploration of this father’s life and work. He  attempted in this film to achieve a closeness with his dad that he never got during his life.

Scott studied engineering as a youth and then enrolled in a music school which was later rechristened as Julliard. His brother directed the CBS Radio band, and to avoid a possible conflict of interest (and to come up with a non-Jewish name) Harry Warnow selected a name at random from the Manhattan directory: Raymond Scott.  He formed his own little ensemble, The Raymond Scott Quintet and began his fascinating journey thru the 20th century of music and technology. He usually created his oddball ditties on the fly with his quintet, dictating parts to them and trying them out, often without writing down the music. “The Toy Trumpet” and “Powerhouse” were among his big hits, but he created a large library of parlor jazz which wasn’t really jazz, most with crazy titles such as “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals” and “Boy Scout in Switzerland.”

In the music technology area, Scott created many different electronic instruments in an effort to come up with one which would create his music automatically for him, hopefully freeing him up to do other creative things. In the process he created the first musical sequencer, which was the starting point for all developments in electronic synthesizers ever since, but for which he never got any credit.  Scott sold his Electronium idea to Berry Gordy of Motown Records and worked on it but never really completed it. Some of the talking heads in this part of the film include Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo (who now owns and is restoring Scott’s Electronium), DJ Spooky, and Herb Deutsch – co-inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Film composer John Willliams is also featured. One of Scott’s commercial recording series of the early 1960s, “Soothing Sounds for Baby,” was entirely electronically generated and eventually led the way to the whole ambient genre of Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and others. (Still available on a Basta CD.) In addition to the development of electronic music, Scott’s work also presaged the minimalists.

The less-than-laudatory aspects of Scott are not ignored in the film. During his first marriage he began to manage a young 12-year-old singer he later named Dorothy Collins, and brought the child in as a family member. Much later he left his wife and married Dorothy and they held sway for some years as the stars of Your Hit Parade on national TV. They even were interviewed by Edward R. Murrow on his Person to Person. They made some multi-tracked recordings similar to Les Paul and Mary Ford, but never achieved success in that.

Most younger people today know Scott’s music from the soundtracks of Warner Bros. cartoons. In 1943 Warner bought Scott’s published music and used it for Bugs Bunny and many other cartoons. More recently it has accompanied Ren and Stimpy, The Simpsons, Duckman and others.  Ironic, since Scott didn’t much care for cartoons. In the early 90s there was a sort of revival of Scott’s music by the Dutch band The Beau Hunks, along with reissues of Scott’s original recordings as well as tributes by new bands. Some expand Scott’s original quintet sounds to a full orchestra with interesting effect.

The various chapters of the documentary are well-organized, and the longer interviews in the extras are worth viewing. One of them elaborates on some of Scott’s thinking in his electronic designs, but I didn’t find it too off-putting technically, as the filmmaker feared. The film also uses much of Scott’s music on the soundtrack. It’s great to see the footage of the Quintet performing – including in some Hollywood movies. And others covered some of Scott’s hits too – I leave you with this amazing version of his “Powerhouse” by a harmonica sextet!

 – John Sunier




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