Sunday, May 8, 2016

Andrea Bocelli: Cinema (PBS “Great Performances,” 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After last night’s Father Brown episode I watched the “feature” of the evening: a PBS-TV special by Andrea Bocelli called “Cinema,” after his current CD, also titled Cinema, in which he recorded music associated with — even though not necessarily composed for — famous (or in some cases not-so-famous) movies. He performed with an orchestra arranged and conducted (from the piano) by David Foster, though at one point he ushered Foster from the piano bench and took over himself for one song. (Apparently Bocelli originally studied piano, then saxophone, then guitar, then accordion, before finally realizing that he should concentrate on voice.) Andrea Bocelli has become a mainstay for PBS pledge-break periods — those insufferable bits of hucksterism American public television has to go through in a period in which the whole idea of public service in the U.S. has become almost as extinct as the dinosaurs, in which we get 20 minutes’ worth of program and then 15 to 20 minutes’ worth of increasingly desperate pleading for people to call in (or, this being the 21st century, long onto the local PBS channel’s Web site) to become members. (As I’ve pointed in these pages before, when Newt Gingrich pointed out — as part of his proposal to get rid of government funding for PBS completely — that these pledge breaks are even more annoying and offensive than commercials, he had a point; they’re just as bad as commercials, except they’re more tackily produced and go on much longer.)

Though KPBS San Diego isn’t officially in the middle of a pledge period they stuck pledge breaks into the Bocelli program anyway — PBS clearly regards Bocelli as a cash cow for the network and its member stations — and the program itself was relentlessly middle-of-the-road, neither fish nor fowl, neither traditional opera (which, despite the weakness of Bocelli’s voice, he still sings better than he does anything else) nor modern-day pop but an uncertain amalgam of the two, referencing but not really embracing the Great American Songbook even though a few of its creators (really only two: the well-known Irving Berlin and the lesser-known Sammy Fain, whose songs you’ve heard of even if the name means nothing to you) were represented on the program. The show began with “Maria” from Leonard Bernstein’s (and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s) West Side Story, which began as a stage musical and then became a multi-Academy Award-winning film (which I loved as a kid but didn’t strike me all that well as an adult; the brilliant opening, shot on the actual streets of New York in a tenement district that was about to be demolished to make way for Lincoln Center, made the rest of the film, shot on studio sets, seem that much phonier by comparison — a problem with a previous film of a Bernstein musical, On the Town, as well). Afterwards John Travolta, one of many celebrity co-hosts the producers of this thing trotted out, gushed, “Have you ever heard anyone sing ‘Maria’ better?” “I have,” I yelled at the TV; “Larry Kert, on the original Broadway cast album!” Then Bocelli did the theme from Ennio Morricone’s score for Cinema Paradiso — though he sang in at least four languages during the concert (Italian, English, Spanish and French), he was clearly most at home in his native tongue — and after that he sang Henry Mancini’s (and Johnny Mercer’s — I was appalled that there were no chyron titles for the composers and no mention of the lyric writers who actually wrote the words Bocelli was singing!) “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Given that this song was written for the non-voice of Audrey Hepburn (who was actually musical enough she could hold her own in a song even though she really didn’t have a singer’s voice — when she did Breakfast at Tiffany’s she’d already made a musical, Funny Face with Fred Astaire, in which she’d done her own singing, and when she signed for My Fair Lady it was with the understanding that they’d use her own voice, but after she recorded two numbers, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “Show Me,” they brought in Marni Nixon to dub her), it didn’t take Bocelli into any dangerous musical territory — no stentorian high notes (as I joked the last time I saw a Bocelli show, he couldn’t hit a full-voiced high C on pitch to save his life or regain his eyesight, a pretty astonishing fact for someone being billed as a tenor) — and its sad, sweetly nostalgic mood didn’t take Bocelli into any emotional territory he couldn’t handle either. Next up was a duet on “Cheek to Cheek” from Irving Berlin’s great score for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Top Hat — and they made it a duet between Bocelli and his wife Veronica. Apparently she just started singing along while he was making his demo disc for the CD, and Foster and the producers decided they liked it well enough they put her on the record and dragged her out as part of the concert as well. She’s O.K., but I noticed the producers needed three straight couples — Signor and Signora Bocelli to sing and two other couples to dance — to perform a number Fred and Ginger managed perfectly well with just the two of them. Then Bocelli launched into the most ill-advised number of the night, Nicholas Brodzsky’s and Sammy Cahn’s messterpiece of bathos, “Be My Love,” from a thoroughly boring 1950 film called The Toast of New Orleans that’s memorable today only because of its star, Mario Lanza. “Be My Love” is really a terrible song, a pile of vocal tics barely glued together by Brodzsky and Cahn, but somehow Lanza’s sincerity and fearlessness made it work. Bocelli covering Lanza is something like Justin Bieber covering Bob Dylan; for all his failings as a human being (bitterly described in Heyday, the memoir of Dore Schary, who was production chief at MGM while Lanza was a star there; Schary is sympathetic to Judy Garland’s troubles but he made his visceral distaste for Lanza clear), Lanza had a fabulous voice, not only great technically but vivid, emotionally intense and soulful as well. Listen to Lanza’s greatest records, like his version of “Serenade” from Sigmund Romberg’s and Dorothy Donnelly’s The Student Prince, and one will hear everything that’s missing from Bocelli’s terminally bland singing.

Then Bocelli got to retreat to his native language with a bit of music from Morricone’s score for Sergio Leone’s last film, Once Upon a Time in America, with a singer named Arianna Grande joining him via a film clip (what’s the matter? Isn’t she still alive?). After that came — surprise, surprise! — a song which showed Bocelli hitting all the emotional qualities he lacked the whole rest of the evening: the Italian-language version of “Speak Softly, Love,” Nino Rota’s love theme from the film The Godfather. (In case you don’t remember it, it’s the theme that represents Michael Corleone’s attempt to escape his Mafia heritage by moving to Sicily and marrying a local girl — only she’s blown up in her car by a member of a rival Mafia faction and Michael returns home to plan his revenge.) He started this song as softly and blandly as he sang everything else, but as he moved through it his voice started to get more intense, and when he hit the reprise after an orchestral interlude he was phrasing beautifully and putting genuine emotion into the song. Alas, the next piece was “Lara’s Theme” from Maurice Jarre’s score for David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, which Bocelli sang in French — I presume because the composer was French, even though the song was from a U.S.-produced movie made by a British director on European locations and set in Russia. Bocelli reverted to his relative emotionlessness for this one (well, it’s a pretty sappy piece of material to begin with and its importance in the movie underscores just why the film was so terrible; it converted a flawed but serious book about the Russian revolution and its aftermath into a soap opera). Then he sang a bit of the score for the film Il Postino and a Spanish-language version of the infamous theme from Love Story (introduced by Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw from the film’s original cast), following which he did a Spanish version of Carlos Gardel’s (and Adolfo La Peña’s) 1930 tango “Por una Cabeza,” used in several films but most famously — at least recently — in the Al Pacino disaster Scent of a Woman (a terrible movie for which Pacino won an Academy Award for the stupidest, schtickiest and worst performance of his career because he’d been passed over for all his truly great movies, including the first two Godfathers and Dog Day Afternoon) with dancers Stephanie Marr and Paul Cabirzan.

After that he trotted out two songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s blockbusters, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from Evita (where he had his best duet partner of the evening, Nicola Scherzinger, who not surprisingly outsang him — well, the show is called Evita, not Juan, after all!) and “Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera. The evening lurched to a close with Sammy Fain’s and Paul Francis Webster’s “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” from the movie of that title — for once the bathos of the song perfectly fit the bathos of Bocelli’s voice — and then they dragged in a children’s chorus to sing along with Bocelli on the theme song from Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust comedy (and yes, that is an oxymoron) Life Is Beautiful. The final piece was “In Your Head” from Gladiator — did you remember Gladiator had a theme song? Neither had I — a decent enough piece (Bocelli wisely sang it in Italian so it didn’t sound quite so silly) with an incomprehensible visual accompaniment on the jumbotron screens: someone (possibly Gladiator star Russell Crowe from one of his Westerns) riding a horse while clad in what appeared to be 19th century clothes that seemed wildly anachronistic given that Gladiator takes place in ancient Rome. The last time I wrote about Bocelli, when I watched PBS’s rebroadcast of his September 15, 2011 concert in Central Park, I said, “I think Bocelli’s voice is essentially comfort music, analogous to comfort food. He’s become a star partly due to a compelling backstory — according to his Wikipedia page, he was born with poor eyesight and became blind at age 12 from an accident playing soccer, and just about everything written about Bocelli mentions his blindness (but then Art Tatum, Willie Johnson, Willie McTell, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and many other musicians have shared Bocelli’s blindness but not his blandness!) — and partly due to a pleasant but unthreatening voice.” It’s probably unfair to be this hard on him — he’s clearly doing what he can with what he has vocally, and an awful lot of people like him — but compared to the great opera singers like Caruso, Pavarotti, Domingo or even Lanza (who was a pop tenor, yes, but a pop tenor with a real voice!), Bocelli pales; I’m O.K. with his success but I hope people don’t mistake what he does for classical music, either in the genre sense or the term’s other meaning as denoting lasting quality.