Pietro Marcello is the director who recently gave us the much-praised drama Martin Eden, transposing the Jack London novel to Italy. Now he has made this documentary, a labour-of-love tribute to one of Bologna’s most favoured sons: the musician and singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla. It’s probably addressed to Dalla’s existing fanbase, rather than newcomers (which I admit includes me) but this is an engaging study, opening a window into the heart of postwar Italy, and incidentally gives a cameo role to this newspaper.
Dalla emerges from the film somewhere between America’s Bob Dylan and Belgium’s Jacques Brel, but otherwise completely in a genre of his own. He was a former cherubic child star who acted, sang and played instruments and grew up to be a somewhat disconcertingly unprepossessing and even ugly man: he cheerfully owned up to the nickname of ragno, or spider, due to his famously hirsute image. (Pictures of him in a swimming costume show someone almost covered in fur.) In his later years of fame and wealth, he actually owned a yacht called Catarro (or Phlegm), due to his habit of coughing and spluttering. But actually, he had a rather humorous and sensitive face, a little like Phil Collins.
Dalla had a successful recording career in jazz and pop, but he only became an Italian legend when he teamed up with the Bologna poet Roberto Roversi, who contributed lyrics – a kind of high-minded Bernie Taupin to Dalla’s Elton John – and the pair created complex and daring concept albums, with all kinds of bold commentary on Italian politics and society. A TV clip shows a round-table discussion, featuring politicians and journalists deferring to Dalla.
His most notable album was probably Automobili (or Automobiles) from 1976, about Italy’s love affair with cars, and particularly the now defunct endurance road race, the Mille Miglia, which took place annually to wild nationwide excitement from the 1920s to the 1950s. The opening track is a long riff, imagining the bland, pompous and evasive replies given by Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli to a journalist from the Guardian – although Dalla spells it out as the “Manchester Guardian” – about selling a stake in Fiat to Libya, with a possible loss of Italian jobs. What other pop star, anywhere in the world, could have created a song taken from Guardian headlines about the car industry and unemployment?
The documentary interviews Dalla’s devoted manager and friend Tobia Righi and uses a good deal of black-and-white archive footage of Bolognese life as that city was transformed into a place of crowded urban modernity. Perhaps it’s more for insiders and specialists, but this film is a taste of Italian life.