by John Larkin
RAGTIME is available to purchase on blu-ray from Amazon.com and digitally on platforms such as Apple, Amazon and Vudu
When I first came to discover the films of Miloš Forman I somehow missed out on RAGTIME. It's certainly not part of the cinematic milieu like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and AMADEUS are. Both of those films won best picture in 1975 and 1984 respectfully, while RAGTIME won no oscars and was merely nominated in eight categories in 1981. Such an underachiever by comparison!
It turns out that RAGTIME is absolute period epic and close to a masterpiece. I say close because I think the film suffers from pacing issues. If it was trimmed down by about twenty minutes I think the film would have been all the more stronger for it and would have stuck around longer in the cultural psyche. Adapted from the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name, RAGTIME is a work of historical fiction that follows the lives of several characters living in New York at the start of the turbulent 1900's.
The film's greatest strength lies in its incredible ensemble of actors, with the absolute highlight being Howard E. Rollins playing Coalhouse Walker Jr., a jazz pianist who refuses to accept abuse by the police and whose actions drive the entire thrust of the second and third acts of the film. How Rollins didn't act in more films after RAGTIME mystifies me, his performance here is as brilliant and soulful as any ever seen on film and he was rightfully nominated for the best supporting actor oscar. Rollins sadly died at age 46 from complications from AIDS and his credits after RAGTIME were mostly television roles.
Aside from Rollins there are a number of actors that have small supporting roles that ended up becoming huge stars; Jeff Daniels, Samuel L. Jackson, Mandy Patinkin and Frank Drescher just to name a few. For someone from my millennial generation it was quite a treat to see all these actors pop up on screen in very inconspicuous ways and it makes you realize how far they went in their career.
Forman was always a great actor's director and the stories he told were all greatly influenced by his experience growing up in communist Czechoslovakia where he faced many arbitrary injustices on a daily basis. On the bonus disc there's a great conversation between screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Michael Weller where they discuss RAGTIME and delve deeper into Forman's sensibilities as a director.
The picture quality on the new blu ray is without a doubt the best the film has ever looked, sourced from a new 4K scan of the negative. While the discs for these Paramount Presents releases are not 4K UHD you can sometimes find that the digital version of certain titles in the itunes library are! It totally depends on the title. Lucky for us this one is with HDR and it looks even better in the itunes library than on the disc!
There's a second disc that contains a rare early work-print of the film that's never been released. It's a longer cut and has big chunks that are black and white and lacking in sound design. Nevertheless if you're a fan of the film it's quite fascinating to see what what was left on the cutting room floor. Note that the cut is close to three hours.
Paramount continues to satisfy the masses with these fantastic releases. I hope they keep coming and I would love to see some start getting the 4K disc treatment.