Ragtime (1981) Blu-ray Review: The Movie Needed to be Shorter or Longer to Succeed

Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name, Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981) is set in the turn of the 20th century New York, and presents an intersection of fictional characters and historical figures. The storyline for one character that appears in the novel was either cut from the film or didn’t make Michael Weller’s screenplay. Unfortunately, what did make the film are a lot of characters whose actions make them and their plight unsympathetic.

Ragtime opens with Harry K. Thaw (Robert Joy) furious that architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) based the statue that graces Madison Square Garden’s roof after Harry’s wife Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern). The feud leads Evelyn to fend for herself. As she becomes less an active participant in story events she recedes to the periphery.

Unnamed in the credits and the novel, an upper-class family are only identified as Father (James Olson), Mother (Mary Steenburgen), and Younger Brother (Brad Dourif), the latter has a brief affair with Evelyn, which offers so little to the plot, it could have been cut and nothing would be lost. A black baby boy is left in the family’s garden. Mother decides to keep him and his mother Sara (Debbie Allen) to keep her our of jail, neither of which Father is pleased with but excepts.

The baby’s father is Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard Rollins), a talented piano player who becomes blinded by pride. On his way to work, a fire engine is blocking the road. The racist firemen refuse to get out of his way, so he leaves the car behind. Upon his return, he finds his vehicle vandalized. He demands restitution, but finds the legal system stacked against him and those like him. Coalhouse forms a terrorist group that murders the racist firemen except Fire Chief Conklin (Kenneth McMillan). He demands Conklin be turned over to him and his car be restored or he will kill more firemen and burn down fire houses. Brother, an expert in bombs, joins Coalhouse’s cause. The group take over a public library and make a stand.

Earlier in the film, Evelyn is traveling through the Jewish section and comes across silhoutte artist Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), who is informed his wife is cheating. He and his daughter leave for Philadelphia and he gets a job making flip books. We next see him as a director shooting a movie with Evelyn. There, he encounters Mother, and they quickly form a strong bond.

Ragtime has an epic scope, which is part of its downfall as it deals with too many characters. Even at a runtime of 155 minutes, it is rushed in places, such as Tateh’s story. There are large leaps in his story, from becoming a filmmaker to his relationship with Mother, which take place offscreen, so it’s hard to connect. Coalhouse’s story alone is compelling, although once innocent people are murdered over a car, he loses me. Father’s changing perspective towards Coalhouse is also of interest, and while they squabbled, Father was frequently deferential to Mother, so their parting is a tad disappointing. Evelyn is the least interesting as things happen to her and I wondered what would be lost if her story was cut.

Newly remastered from a 4K film transfer, the video is at the original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Colors appear in rich hues. Black are inky and don’t crush while whites are bright and accurate. Fine texture detail allows one to see the cobblestones in the streets and the work on the period costumes. Film grain is light and increases during the fake, black-and-white newsreel footage.

The audio is available in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 but it is mostly presented in the front channels. Dialogue is clear throughout. Composer Randy Newman’s score felt authentic to the era and was never overpowering. The subwoofer is given little to do, the surrounds even less.

The New Extras are in HD:

  • Deleted and Extended Scenes (17 min): The scenes are in black and white.
  • Ragtime Revisited: A Conversation with Larry Karaszewski and Screenwriter Michael Weller on Ragtime (21 min): They cover topics such as how Weller got involved, how he shaped the script, and both of them working with Forman.

The Legacy Extras are in SD:

  • Audio Commentary by Forman and Executive Producer Michael Hausman
  • Deleted Scene (10 min): Mostly in black and white, Emma Goldman is on hand when Tateh attacks his wife (Fran Drescher), and she encounters Evelyn.
  • Remembering Ragtime (19 min): Forman and others talk about the making of the film.

Disc 2 presents a Director’s Cut Workprint that runs 19 minutes longer with additional scenes in black and white.

Ragtime is an American epic of a kind that isn’t made anymore, which is a shame because big stories deserve big canvases. But this big story needed more time, like a minseries, or less time to sharpen its focus on fewer characters. Fans will be pleased with the high-defintion video and the extras that allow a deeper dive.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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