John Turturro likes killing cliches. Though he’s best known as an actor, particularly for his work with Joel and Ethan Coen (“Barton Fink,” “The Big Lebowski”) and Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”), “Passione” is Turturro’s fourth film as a director, and his first documentary. In it, he presents the music of the city of Naples in all its rich and vibrant character, from ancient ballads to classical compositions, to modern jazz, reggae, and more.
Turturro put his love of music on full display in his last film, 2005’s “Romance and Cigarettes,” which featured the likes of James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, and Christopher Walken bursting into song. “Passione” takes things even further; it’s like a wild crazy jam session playing out on the streets of Naples, with one powerful performance after another all linked together with stories, personal anecdotes and even a few appearances by Turturro himself as narrator, storyteller, and, in one scene, backup dancer.
Though the title makes it sound like Turturro has worked his whole life to tell this story, that’s not the case; in fact, Turturro was invited by local producers to bring an outsider’s perspective on Neapolitan music. Though he already loved the city, Turturro was surprised by what he found in his research. “It’s really international,” he told me of Naples’ melting pot of musical influences. “It’s not just these lament love songs that I heard growing up, some of which are really good but I wasn’t that interested in. I [told the producers], “Listen, I’m not interested in doing the cliche stuff. Maybe if we could kill the cliche…”
During our half-hour conversation, I talked with Turturro about killing cliches, and what he thought his status as something of a Neapolitan neophyte brought to this unusual project. Plus we discussed his work with the Coens, his dream of making a movie about the notorious Jesus Quintana, and what it’s like to counter-program yourself during summer movie season.
The producers actually came to you and pitched you the project. How did their pitch vary from your finished film?
Well, they said “Buena Vista Social Club.” The first thing I said was “You don’t want to make a movie about putting a band back together, because that was a very specific story.” Then they wanted to do something that would be a little more all-encompassing. Truthfully you could make a ten hour documentary about this subject matter.
When they asked me to do it they knew I had worked [as an actor in Naples], and that I liked music, and people there really loved “Romance and Cigarettes.” The film ran for seven months there and did very well. So they hooked me up with a journalist and musicologist [Federico Vacalebre] and he was sort of my tutor. He’d send me documentaries and songs, and I would listen to them. There were singers I liked, and when I met them and saw what they looked like, I was like “Wow, this person could be good on film.” And you could tell from their renditions if they could be an interesting storyteller. Because a lot of singers, you put a camera on them and you need fifty cuts to sustain it.
Eventually by the time we said okay after two years of work, we had selected the songs. But I changed my mind, even in preproduction and sometimes even in the course of filming, so we had to improvise a lot. Eventually it became like a musical adventure through the city, where each song tells you a little something about the city. And I cut a couple songs out because I wanted to leave the audience wanting more.
It was really an adventure. We shot 23 songs in 21 days. It was nuts. And a lot of the songs are live. So it was really like a little miracle. It could have been a disaster. The first day I was thinking “I don’t know what the hell I’ve got myself into!” [laughs]
You might assume given the subject matter, given the title, that you spent your whole life studying Neapolitan music, or that you grew up there. But you didn’t; you just love the city and the music. What do you think that perspective brought to the movie that it wouldn’t have if someone who was a lifelong expert had made it?
Distance. Early on they said “Y’know John, you have to do an immigration song, you have to do this, you have to do that…” And for a while, I conceded. And then when I was looking at the songs and the arrangements I was thinking, “This is too heavy. You’re going to be bored. I need something slow, then I need something delicate, then I need something powerful.” The film starts telling you what you can do. So eventually I told them “I don’t have to do anything you tell me. I only have to make a movie that people will stay awake for. And that’s my job.”
This was a fantastic education, but what was really interesting for me was to see these people when they sing; they sing like they’re rooted in the ground. You watch singers [in America], they have big voices but a lot of times they’re trying to sing to impress you. And these people are singing out of this need of who they are.
The performances in the film reminded me a little of the performances in “Romance in Cigarettes.” People singing their guts out in these very naturalistic settings.
Yeah, but it’s a whole different thing here. In “Romance and Cigarettes,” they wish they could sing. I think when you see someone who’s a great performer they can encapsulate so much in a song. It’s one of the great things about being a human being, being exposed to different kinds of music.
I was intrigued by the way you structured the film so that the explanation or history about a song often came after the performance rather than before it. Why’d you choose to edit things that way?
There’s that number, for example, “Catari.” Fausto Cigliano plays “Catari” in front of this painting. Some people who are art historians will know that painting is a Caravaggio and it’s “The Seven Acts of Mercy.” Now I could have subtitled it. But you’re experiencing the painting as a painting. And you experience the song as a song. I don’t want to over-subtitle everything. Like the song “Canto Delle Lavandaie Del Vomero” in the Roman aqueduct. That song is from 1300. It’s the first popular song. The lyrics are really simple, so I didn’t even subtitle it.
Some songs we talk a little bit more about than others. I wasn’t stringent, I didn’t make up rules. I kind of let what we had tell us what was good and what worked. Some people wanted more explanation, but I think that would have taken away from the emotional experience of the movie. And that’s what the movie is, You come out of it, you’re like “What the hell was that?” And if you want to know more, you can ask me and I can tell you.
That’s what the DVD commentary’s for.