Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.
If the name Stanley Tucci is mentioned, nine times out ten he will be mostly associated for his performance as Nigel in The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel: 2006). For myself, I’m particularly fond of a masterclass of cinema in which Tucci co-directed, co-produced, co-wrote, and starred as the leading man. That film is the 90s comedy-drama classic Big Night (Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott: 1996). Netflix places this film in its “hidden gems” category and it truly is for many reasons, but it’s the film’s outstanding use of soundtrack that will be the focus of analysis for this piece. The soundtrack is full of boisterously traditional Italian serenades, and Italian-American jazz, which in many scenes are applied on screen with beautiful effect.
The film’s most triumphant musical moments has the diegesis either muted, or dampened, under the non-diegetic soundtrack as it plays over some very aesthetically pleasing cinematography. These scenes are essentially produced within the same conventions as mainstream music videos. A parallelism is created as the core themes and mood within the music being heard is visually manifested within the mise-en-scene. Take the first scene for example, which can easily be mistaken as a music video. The film opens to the music of Stornelli Amorisi by Claudio Villa over an establishing shot of the New Jersey shore. The camera then pans to none other than one of the top-selling tropical salsa recording artists of all time, Marc Anthony performing as sous-chef Cristiano. Although the music doesn’t match Marc Anthony’s oeuvre as a musician, his performance and the cinematography resemble many of the romanticised shots within music video. Particularly the wide shot of Cristiano strolling very slowly up a hill, smoking, in line to the adagio rhythm of the soundtrack.
Romanticism in Motion
Another great example of this music video-like quality to the soundtrack can be seen during a scene that depicts the protagonist, Secondo (Stanley Tucci), test-driving a Cadillac. Another song of Claudio Villa is used, this time it's La Strada nel Bosco over a montage of Secondo driving around with car salesman, Bob, who is conveniently played by co-director Campbell Scott. The montage consists of slow-motion mid shots of the two characters smoking in the car, as well as slow-motion wide-shots of the car cruising around. The slow-motion effect parallels the lento nature of the soundtrack. The music also appears to be meta-diegetic as it romanticizes Secondo’s superficial experience cruising around in a flash car that he couldn’t possibly afford. This is the reason why the music abruptly comes to a halt once Secondo returns to his restaurant. The fantasy has ended, now back to work.
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The First Course
As the soundtrack is used to romanticise the action on screen in a music video styled quality, the moments in which this soundtrack technique is most often used is during the portrayal of the common code and convention of Italian-American cinema; the cooking and eating of food. In comparison to such scenes as being taught how to make a sauce in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola: 1972), arguing over how many onions to use in Goodfellas (Martin Scorcese: 1990), there is easily an argument for Big Night having one of the most romanticized depictions of food in cinematic history. For example, a slow montage sequence of the two protagonist chefs preparing their signature dish, timpano, is depicted to the soundtrack of il piscivendolo by Matteo Salvatore. The focus of the song itself is on food. Matteo Salvatore performs as a fish merchant crying out to potential customers by vividly describing the quality and freshness of his fish in a thick southern Italian accent. This non-diegetic soundtrack not only romanticises, but also orchestrates beautifully taken high-angle-mid-shots of the two chef’s hands preparing fresh pasta.
The Never-Ending Course
Further, regarding the musically romanticised portrayal of food, Big Night offers a truly authentic Italian dining experience as, to put it simply, the food never ends. Similar to The Sopranos in which food is featured in a majority of the show’s mise-en-scene, Big Night depicts a montage that would make the spectator feel full on watching the scene alone. Similar to the scenes discussed earlier, the diegetic audio is muted in the montage so that another Claudio Villa track can be heard in full volume. This time the track is Tic Ti, Tic Ta; a romantic song in which we hear Villa attempting to court a beautiful blonde woman. It’s clear the track has been chosen to romanticise eating as an experience as the track is full of life which parallels the quickly edited close-ups of the guests and their food. A great segment of the montage is during the bridge of the song the diners perform as they’re full to a lethargic extent, they could not possibly eat another crumb. The chorus kicks back in and a mid-shot of a huge hog-roast is accompanied by the return of Villa’s vocals.
To conclude, Big Night is a great cinematic example of how non-diegetic music can be used to parallel and essentially heighten mood within the image. Throughout the film non-diegetic sound-tracking practically takes the audible centre-stage in scenes to portray that the characters are living la dolce vita. Therefore, it is not surprising that during the films most confrontational, tense, and emotional moments, a single note of music can not be heard. The best example of this being the film’s resolution which compared to the scenes discussed earlier is completely silent. Big Night is full of sleek montages of vibrant food being accompanied by equally colourful music. In the end, however, we are subjected to a static wide-shot of an unseasoned omelette with white bread. There is no music to be heard, no words spoken, not a single sound.
© 2020 Andrea Sciambarella