Paolo Conte – Via Con Me

Cards on the title. Before I saw the film, I had only the vaguest idea of who Paolo Conte is. If you pushed me, I might have said he was a singer, but I was probably confusing him with Paolo Nutini (about whom I know not much more). Anyway it turns out that Conte is a singer, but also a composer, Chansoniste and composer of film scores.

How much it matters that I didn’t know this depends in part on what this documentary is trying to do. Is it just showing Conte to his existing fanbase? In which case my opinion counts for not much at all. Or is it trying to attract a new audience which is unaware of what he is able to offer? I guess this would make more sense, in which case, come on, tell me what I need to know.

There are a LOT of talking heads in the film, most of whom are saying variations on the same theme that Conte is brilliant. One of the first up is Roberto Benigni, the man who thought that making a comedy about the Holocaust would be a good idea (it wasn’t). Benigni does his usual thing of using a lot of words to say not very much at all.

I understand that Benigni has his followers, and I can sort of understand why. But he’s rarely been less than insufferable to me. As he is speaking he has a permanent smug grin as if he is aware that what he has just said is hilarious – even when it really isn’t.

Benigni makes a lot of fuss about Conte’s surname being similar to “count” which makes him almost royalty. He appears a couple of times more to make the same point. Well, not being a great fan of royalty that didn’t do much for me, but Benigni’s whole speech (and it is a speech) has the air of all tell and no show. Ok, you say he’s great. Can you explain why exactly?

There is – apparently – a great range of other people asserting Conte’s greatness. I say “apparently” as I’d only actually heard of Jane Birkin and Isabella Rossellini. But apparently many of the others are actors, film directors and the sort of people that other people who are more sophisticated than me would be impressed by.

The one thing I did notice was that most people who were interviewed were already pushing retirement if not already there. Nothing wrong with this in principle – older people are woefully underrepresented in film, and we should hear much more from them. But again, if this film is aiming at winning a new audience for Conte, maybe a wider demographic of speakers would have helped-

For all this, the one thing that saved the film was the music. Now a lot of it really isn’t my thing, and I was a bit put off by the band of men in dinner jackets and bow ties (not to mention the audience in opera house boxes), but some of Conte’s songs are really pretty good. If this were simply a concert film, I think I would have rather enjoyed it.

Instead there was no real structure that I could discern. In between the endless ageing artists assuring us that Conte was a genius, we saw concert footage in no particular order – some from decades ago, some very recent. And some of the songs kept on coming up again and again. That’s sort of fine, they weren’t bad songs, but there was no sense of why they’d been written or what they had to say.

Early on in the film, someone testifies to Conte’s brilliance as a song writer. Now I didn’t have a lot to go on, watching German subtitles of someone singing in Italian, but while we rose a little about odes to moons in June, the songs didn’t really seem to be saying much. In one interview, Conte says that he sees his songs as landscapes, and they’re mainly short stories which describe a scene, but one that doesn’t really mean much to someone like me watching in 2021.

In no sense is this a bad film. As said, listening to the songs is just about worth coming along. But you do get the overwhelming feeling “what is this all about?” “why are you showing me this?” We don’t get any real insights into Conte, his working methods or what his songs can tell us, just that he and they are “great”. Well, maybe, but I was hoping for a little more than that.

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