On a recent trip to New York I managed to take in three films, four art exhibits and two live music performances. Although I intended only to write about the concerts for my blog, I’ll offer some thoughts on my other visits as they relate to music and/or cross-cultural exchange through art.
I started my trip with a stroll down to the Film Forum (Houston and 6th Ave.) where I saw Passione, directed by John Turturro. Evidently it was fortunate I had not seen the trailer as several friends reported that they had been turned off by the preview and were not interested in seeing the film. Going in unaware of what to expect I thoroughly enjoyed sitting for 90 minutes and listening to the various vocalists and styles that Turturro chose to feature in this film about the rich musical culture of Naples. The range of vocal qualities and colors was astonishing - from archival recordings of operatic tenor Enrico Caruso to the rich ‘grain’ in the voices of Pietra Montecorvino and Pepe Barra. Nevertheless the “music as portrayed in film” critic in me did take over at times.
The basic premise of Passione was to portray the importance of song in Naples as an emotional thread binding people and cultures together. The widely varying influences that resulted in the uniqueness of Neopolitan music did become apparent through the many sequences of informal interviews and performances. The hip-hop dance sequence that was linked to the energy of a medieval tarantella was particularly striking. It occurred to me very early into the film that the goal may have been to create a Buena Vista Social Club equivalent for Naples. But without the continuity that was created by following members of BVSC for a period of time and several of their performances, Passione merely scratched the surface of what would undoubtedly be a rich field for further exploration.
Several editorial decisions also contributed to the superficial feel of Passione. Most nettlesome was the MTV music-video strategy for filming music performance, that is, using a prerecorded studio version of a song to underscore a lip-synched filming of the vocalists on location somewhere in Naples. This was somewhat tolerable when there was a story to reenact, but in a few instances the filming was done as if the group were performing on the street with microphones, etc. Maybe those of us who perceive the disconnect between the audio and video in such cases are just too few in number to consider. A second short-coming was that none of the female vocalists were interviewed (to my recollection) about their craft, their background, or what they were singing. As many of the songs highlighted women’s dubious social roles as performers (a fact alluded to by Turturro and stated out-right in one of the songs—“They call me a whore”), Turturro could have also chosen to subvert these perceived roles by allowing commentary from the vocalists themselves.
Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. These critiques are for those who may be looking at Passione as potential classroom material. With a bit of research to find more in-depth information and additional sound files for comparison, sequences from the film could be used to great effect. And from my experience, asking the questions about how music and musicians are portrayed in film spark the most interesting discussions.