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

This documentary about composer/inventor Raymond Scott gets a little too up close and personal.

Stanley Warnow explores the life and career of his composer-inventor father, known for anarchic scores in classic Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig.

There is such a thing as being too close to your subject, as evidenced by Deconstructing Dad: The  Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott. This documentary about the little-known but hugely influential composer and inventor was made by his son, Stanley Warnow, and the debuting filmmaker is clearly as interested in exploring the dynamics of his relationship with his emotionally distant father as in exploring his life and career. The scattershot results, while admittedly providing plenty of fascinating details, doesn’t quite do its subject justice.

Scott (1908-1994) is best known today for the use of his freewheeling, wildly inventive orchestral scores in countless Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and the like, which is ironic considering that he never wrote the music for that purpose. Fortunately, the studio’s legendary music director Carl Stalling had the inspired idea of incorporating such anarchic compositions as “Powerhouse” into the cartoons, thus ensuring their composer’s immortality.

The film dutifully outlines the details of Scott’s multi-faceted career, which included leading his own quintet and big band during the ‘30s and ‘40s; hosting a syndicated television show, Your Hit Parade, during the 50’s; and later inventing early versions of such devices as the synthesizer and even the fax machine. One of his inventions, an electronic “composition and performance machine” dubbed the Electronium, was purchased by Motown Records head Berry Gordy.

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While there is little in the way of film footage of Scott on display other than some grainy kinescopes and an appearance on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person, there’s plenty of audio commentary to make up for it, including lengthy excerpts from interviews and personal recordings. A variety of talking heads—including composer John Williams, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, producer Hal Willner and musicians DJ Spooky and Don Byron, among others-- attest to Scott’s enduring influence, with more than one comparing him to Frank Zappa.

Not surprisingly, the filmmaker also explores his Scott’s tumultuous personal life, including three marriages, one of which was to a young female singer and protégé who lived with the family when she was barely a teenager. But his residual pain over his father’s indifferent parenting, while undeniably poignant, is a subject that would have been better explored in therapy rather than cinematically.

Opens July 13 (Cavu Pictures)

Director/producer/director of photography/editor: Stan Warnow

Music: Raymond Scott

Not rated, 98 min