Around the time John Turturro’s musical “Romance and Cigarettes” was loosened from its distribution limbo in 2007, brought on by the takeover of its distributor United Artists by Sony, one of the film’s stars James Gandolfini remarked to the New York Times, “There’s at least $3 million of weirdos out there who’d go to see it. I probably know half of them.”
That film played in Italy for seven months, and Turturro’s directorial follow-up “Passione,” a documentary of sorts about the enduring musical tradition of Naples, would appear to be a case of giving his audience more of what they want. Free of the necessity of a narrative, Turturro doesn’t recount a history of Italian music so much as get inside it, staging scenes for musicians to act out the lyrics of their melodies and imagining the city as a place where residents break into song on street corners.
“This is a city painted with song,” Turturro says during one of his periodical interludes, breaks that arrive as if he were a DJ rather than a tour guide, though the film is keenly aware of the beautiful scenery and distinctive residents to capture on camera. Names of famed crooners like Sergio Bruni and Angela Luce are tossed around like so much spaghetti, but the aim of “Passione” is loftier than the best-of collection that easily could’ve resulted. The structure is loose to reflect the unbridled nature of music and works well in demonstrating the variety of genres and stylings, particularly when Turturro takes a classic like “O Sole Mio” and shows its evolution from a standard sung by the golden-throated Bruni through its many reinterpretations leading to a more rhythmic cover by M’Barka Ben Taleb in the present day.
The approach keeps the film going at a rapid clip, and no doubt the already converted will lose themselves in “Passione,” but for others, it may prove exhausting as there’s no foundation to hold onto when Turturro’s intention is let the film fly from one musical sequence to another. It’s telling that Turturro keeps his presence in the film limited until near the end, picking up a shovel and enthusiastically joining the chorus for a rousing version of “Caravan Petrol” set in the dusty plains, as if he personally let the music overwhelm him and couldn’t stand being behind the camera any longer.
Turturro is able to sit still long enough to conduct interviews with a motley assortment of subjects, from James Senese, a saxophonist who discusses being persecuted for his mixed-race heritage to Don Alfonso, a chef who reminisces about his mother after Turturro off-camera goads him into belting a tune. The latter feels far less forced than the former since the film flows more freely when it sticks to its inherently playful tone and its attempts to shoehorn in context (such as a speedy montage of World War II) don’t feel fully baked, which is unfortunate since Turturro’s thesis, as verbalized by one of his man-on-the-street interviews, that the myriad of musical influences has been a result of Naples constantly changing hands between invaders for centuries deserves further exploration.
However, “Passione” succeeds at being as entertaining as its subject matter, replicating the “avalanche” of sound, as Turturro terms it, that’s as bombastic as that other film he starred in this summer, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” only here it’s in the service of something entirely human.
P.S. If fans of former “Doogie Howser” star Max Casella need additional incentive, they should know he’s singing for the first time on camera since 1992’s “Newsies.”
Have you seen "Passione" and did it leave you dancing in the aisles or rushing for the exits? Let us know in the comments below.