Scott Joplin (film)

Scott Joplin is a 1977 biographical film directed by Jeremy Kagan and based on the life of American composer and pianist Scott Joplin. It stars Billy Dee Williams and Clifton Davis. Its script won an award from the Writers Guild of America in 1979.[2] The only other composers mentioned as worthy equals in the film are John Philip Sousa and Jelly Roll Morton. Eubie Blake makes an appearance in the movie.

Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin movie.jpg
Directed byJeremy Kagan
Produced byStanley Hough
Janet Hubbard
StarringBilly Dee Williams
Music byScott Joplin
Dick Hyman
CinematographyDavid M. Walsh
Edited byPatrick Kennedy
Distributed byNBC
Universal Studios
Release date
February 11, 1977[1]
Running time
96 min.
CountryUnited States


In the late 19th century, Scott Joplin, a young African-American musician, moves to Missouri and to make ends meet finds a job as a piano teacher. He befriends Louis Chauvin, who play piano in a brothel.

Joplin composes ragtime music. One day his "Maple Leaf Rag" is heard by John Stark, a publisher of sheet music in St. Louis, Missouri. Stark is impressed, buys the rights to the composition and sells it, with Joplin sharing some of the profits. Joplin's new songs also achieve a great popularity.

Chauvin is equally talented, but contracts syphilis and dies in his 20s. Joplin becomes obsessed with composing more serious music, yet is continually thwarted in his attempt to write and publish an opera.



The film was made as a TV movie that was to air on NBC as Motown Productions' first venture into dramatic television. However, the film was given a theatrical release instead after Universal Pictures executives thought it had box-office potential.[3]


After the film tested poorly in Phoenix, Arizona but strongly in Washington, D.C., it was marketed primarily to black audiences.[3]

A review in Variety stated "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. Another problem is that the Motown Production was originally intended for TV, and shows it in the choppy episodic structure and corner-cutting production values."[4] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded 2 stars out of 4 and called it "a turgid film" consisting of "two Joplin successes and a whole mess of failures. Both successes come in the film's first 30 minutes...From then on the film is a downer."[5] Hollie J. West of The Washington Post wrote "The film was originally intended for television, and may wind up there yet. Lingering close-ups are plentiful, and the dramatic content fleshless and simplistic. As Joplin, Billy Dee Williams is believable. But he is ensnared in a screenplay which presents the greatest ragtime composer on only two levels: driven by a desire to become an accepted composer, and tormented by a crippling case of syphilis."[6]


  1. ^ "Scott Joplin - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 13, 2019.
  2. ^ Pearce, Carol A. (April 13, 1979). "Writers Guild Presents Awards". Back Stage. p. 15.
  3. ^ a b "Scott Joplin - History". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 13, 2019.
  4. ^ "Film Reviews: Scott Joplin". Variety. February 9, 1977. 22.
  5. ^ Siskel, Gene (September 27, 1977). "Films reflect fall attitude: Don't compete with the tube". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 6.
  6. ^ West, Hollie J. (February 18, 1977). "'Scott Joplin': A Ragtime Melodrama". The Washington Post. B1.

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