Film Review – DECONSTRUCTING DAD: Documentary on Raymond Scott

Deconstructing Dad is a peculiar film.  A documentary about jazz composer-turned-electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott made by his son, Stan Warnow, the film was produced to fulfill a dual purpose: To introduce new audiences to Scott’s work, and also as a way for Warnow to rediscover his connection to his distant, reclusive father.  As such, the film is pulled in these two different, although not necessarily exclusive, directions throughout.  In essence, the film both benefits and suffers from the familial relationship between its creator and subject.

The film opens with a montage of photographs of Raymond Scott’s life and career, accompanied by Warnow’s narration.  The director explains how his father, born Harry Warnow in then- East New York, got his first breaks as a music composer, formed the Raymond Scott Quintette, and quickly gained a national audience with his recordings.  Commentators, including music buffs; former business associates; and Scott’s first wife, Pearl, describe Scott’s early successes; along with his idiosyncrasies, which were manifested in his music, as well as his personal life.  (At one point, his wife describes Scott leaving his own wedding reception in order to continue tinkering with electronics.)

As a composer, Raymond Scott was unconventional.  He came of age musically during a time when jazz was in vogue.  His compositions, such as “Powerhouse” and “The Penguin” used jazz approaches to instrumentation, melody, and tempo, yet he consciously avoided one of its main aspects, improvisation.  Unlike other jazz ensembles, the band leader allowed the other members of his “Quintette” little room for embellishment.  At the time, Raymond’s compositions were essentially middle-brow potboiler work: interesting but unchallenging, well-suited as background or bumper music.  Scott too seems to have sensed this, and must have felt that his strengths lied elsewhere.  According to one business associate, he was once asked if he enjoyed composing music and responded that no, it was too much work, and he’d prefer to have a machine to do it for him.

After a stint in Hollywood, in which his music, and the Raymond Scott Quintette, appeared in several films, Raymond Scott left Tinseltown for good. “I gave up on Hollywood because they think everything is wonderful,” he said at the time.  After folding the group into a big band ensemble, he eventually picked up a gig as bandleader on CBS’s Your Hit Parade, which beamed him into American living rooms every Saturday night.

Warnow’s film does a good job of summing up his father’s career during this period.  There is a fascinating counterpoint woven throughout, however, and that is Raymond Scott’s dysfunctional family life.  There are hints of this even from the start, and Warnow doesn’t hold back.  He describes his father’s bizarre, neglectful behavior as Scott missed major events in his children’s lives.  There is a poignant story of the composer arranging excellent seats at a Brooklyn Dodgers game for his son, only to be absent, yet again.

Raymond Scott in Studio c1970

There was one young person in whom Raymond did take an active interest: his ward-turned-band vocalist-turned lover, Dorothy Collins.  Perhaps most damaging to Raymond Scott’s legacy is Warnow’s account of this relationship.  Born Marjorie Chandler, Collins was adopted by Scott and his wife at a young age in order for Scott to groom her vocal talent.  As she grew older, she took on a stage name and began singing with Raymond Scott’s group.  Eventually, their partnership grew romantic, and Scott divorced his wife, Warnow’s mother, to marry Collins.  They recorded and released music as a duo, in a similar vein as Les Paul and Mary Ford, but were not nearly as successful.

From here the story gets fuzzy, and with good reason.  Raymond Scott and Dorothy Collins were newlyweds, raising children of their own.  Warnow didn’t have much interaction with his father during this time, so details of his personal life are rather slim.  Instead, we learn about futuristic inventions that Scott created during this time, all with fantastical names: “the orchestra machine,” “the Karloff sound effect machine,” “the Clavivox,” and finally, “the Electronium.”  The Electronium would prove to be Scott’s white whale, a machine that synthesized and sequenced music independently of a human user.  The idea briefly found traction in, of all places, Berry Gordy’s Motown studio.  While on Motown’s payroll, the inventor spent much of his later life tinkering with the Electronium, which he never completed to his (or Gordy’s) satisfaction.  A mothballed prototype is currently owned by Devo frontman/film composer, Mark Mothersbaugh, who befriended Scott in his later years and provides commentary in the film.

MotownElectronium BW c 1972

A recurring theme throughout the film is Warnow’s surprise upon discovering yet another detail of his father’s hidden life.  We see him interview music librarians and enthusiasts at the University of Missouri Kansas City, who casually recommend obscure Raymond Scott recordings that his son has never heard of.  It is during these moments that the layers of the film are peeled away, and we see the real guiding purpose of the filmmaker’s work.  During an interview with one of Scott’s technical collaborators, the director abruptly changes the subject and asks if his father ever spoke of him during their time together.  The answer, of course, is no, and one can sense the uneasiness with which Raymond’s peers and fellow inventors must have treated the subject during their work with him.  Raymond Scott was clearly a man of immense talent and vision, yet it couldn’t have been any secret that he had an unusual, antisocial disposition.

Scott’s detached manner didn’t do him any favors when he was trying to fund his electronic experiments in his later life, but it certainly enhances the aura of mystery around him today.  Although they are family, Warnow can’t help but treat his father with that same sense of wonder.  Toward the end of the film, he describes finding a letter in the deceased Scott’s belongings.  Addressed simply to “Gentlemen,” the letter goes on to claim credit for inventing the first electronic music synthesizer– an accomplishment which evidently belonged to him, but which he never publically claimed.  The letter remained unsent.

Raymond Scott with Clavivox c 1955

Scott’s third wife, Mitzi, experienced a similar moment of revelation while her husband was still alive.  After receiving several royalty checks in the mail form Warner Brothers, she finally asked what they were for.  Scott then casually mentioned that he had licensed his music to be used in cartoons, which is how millions of people recognize his early compositions.  (The middle section of “Powerhouse” is instantly recognizable as the accompaniment to many industrial/assembly line settings of Looney Toons shorts.)  Apparently he had never told his wife about his earlier career as a composer.

In addition to the unwieldy title, Deconstructing Dad has moments of unevenness, particularly in the way it casually veers between Raymond Scott’s personal and professional lives, which were clearly worlds apart.  Viewers will undoubtedly sense Warnow’s awe at his father’s accomplishments, and sadness that they were never close.  Despite this, Raymond Scott’s personality seemed to be a classic case of “less than meets the eye.”  It would be easy to imagine that a genius inventor would have a fascinating interior life– how could he not?  Yet, the portrait painted of Raymond Scott in the film is that of an awkward, insular tinkerer, far more interested in the cold blips and beeps of machines than in the lives of the people around him.  One gets the sense that socializing with the man would be agonizing for everyone involved.  Another filmmaker might rightfully focus on Scott’s technical accomplishments, or his hot-cold relationship with the media establishment, which are more compelling subjects than his absentee parenting.  Warnow’s attempt to take a more personal perspective is entirely understandable, but in documenting the life and work of Raymond Scott, he makes it clear that, while Raymond Scott may have been a father, he was never a dad.  Now that Warnow’s film has established this, perhaps someone could deconstruct the inventor instead.


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