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

Yet another documentary about a supposedly unheralded show-business maverick just barely holds viewer interest.

How many warts-and-all portraits of creative “geniuses” have already been made (in which, of course, the genius excuses the warts and the all)? How many more must we endure? Deconstructing Dad—The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott isn’t any better or worse than the others, just more of the same. If Scott was as great as all that, the film fails in trying to make its case.

Who was Raymond Scott (actually born Harry Warnow in 1908)? Never mind all the biographical details presented throughout Deconstructing Dad by director-writer-cinematographer-editor Stan Warnow, Scott’s worshipful son. You’ve seen and heard these particulars all before. Just fill in the blanks about the guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, focused on his art at the expense of his personal life, alienated some people, including family members, but created so many memorable and lasting works, it didn’t really matter then and certainly doesn’t matter now.

Talking heads abound, so many testimonials, mostly from people you’ve never heard of—e.g., Jeff Winner, Gert-Jan Blom, Irwin Chusid, Herb Deutsch; just trust Warnow that these are experts in the field. But Warnow scores a coup now and then with such recognizable ‘big names” as the fabulously mainstream John (Star Wars) Williams and the reputedly offbeat Mark Mothersbaugh (never mind the fact the once-hip Devo leader has been making movie soundtrack rock schlock for years—Rugrats I and II, anyone?). Not one of these talkative heads says anything negative about Raymond Scott—he was the first this, he was the best that—despite the fact that absolutely nothing you hear musically sounds “ahead of his time.”

In fact, Scott’s big-band work, animation orchestrations (Bugs Bunny for Warner Bros.), compositions for TV (“Lucky Strikes” commercials) and Broadway (Lute Song with Mary Martin) sound very much of their time. To wit, Scott’s invention of a pre-synthesizer machine is praised to the skies but actually postdates (by many years) the similar-sounding and more interesting Theremin (oh, yes, by the way, the documentary about Theremin, the inventor, predates this film). To be sure, there are legitimate plusses: Scott insisted on having a racially integrated band when he worked at Warner Bros., yet one must wonder what he was thinking when composing the music for “War Dance for Wooden Indians” (1941), an animated film produced around the same time, not to mention some racially charged Warner cartoons.

The only really “edgy” stuff comes from family members who admit that Scott was a distant husband and father. But by tiptoeing around his most transgressive act—philandering with a 12-year-old band-singer protégé—even these observations get tiresome after a while. (Imagine what Nick Broomfield would have done with that story.) Thanks to the occasionally cranky personal bits, one cannot call Deconstructing Dad hagiographic—but where is the deconstruction? We’re still waiting, Daddy-O.