Director: Kai Wessel (Germany, Romania). Year of Release: 2022
When you live in a country a certain amount of time, you become aware of certain musicians and singers who you know are popular, but you’re not quite sure how popular. Go into a mainstream German record shop (inasmuch as German record shops still exist) and you’re bound to see something or other by Roger Cicero (pronounced like the Thesaurus), a pleasant enough looking man, even though he bears an uncanny resemblance to Dennis Wise. This is his story.
Well, to be fair, it’s also the story of his father Eugen, a jazz/classical pianist who accompanied some of the greats, but it’s Roger who attracts most of the screen time. We see him starting off singing inoffensive MOR standards like Isn’t She Lovely and Just the Way You Are, before his management had the wild idea of relaunching him as a big band jazz singer who sang lyrics in German. No-one had tried this before, and you must admit, No-one had a point.
We watch Roger surprizingly win the German equivalent of A Song For Europe which meant that he got to sing at the Eurovision Song Contest. He came fourth last – apparently the call for German-language jazz is not so huge in the rest of Europe. But he steadily built up his fan base. Meanwhile, he returned to his first love, singing English language songs by people like Nick Drake and Van Morrison with a smaller band (and audience).
Roger is rarely seen on stage without a suit. When he’s singing the big jazz numbers, he wears a trilby and a tie. When he’s doing the more intimate covers its a flat cap and a t-shirt. To an outsider, it all looks a bit strange. For reasons that I don’t quite get, Tom Waits is able to come on stage in a suit and hat an inhabit a character. Cicero looks like a young boy who has spent a little too much time in the dressing up box.
We return to Eugen’s story, which, if we are to believe the voiceover, was full of disappointment. Disillusioned with his lack of recognition, he turned to drink, and quite possibly harder substances. He only did occasional concerts, quite often in small venues in front of an invited audience of friends, playing the sort of songs that pleased him. If you listen to the narration, this was a source of great regret, but to me it sounds like he spent his time doing what he enjoyed.
Roger, in contrast, seems to have never stopped. Different musicians who worked with him explained how he found it almost shameful to take a break and just enjoy himself. It is not said explicitly, but you guess that this may be him trying to overcompensate for the lack of recognition that was given to his father. To reinforce this idea, every so often Roger’s managers appear on screen to celebrate his material success.
Much is made of the fact that Eugen did not experience his son’s success, dying from a brain tumour in 1997 at the age of 57, 10 years before his son appeared in Eurovision. Roger found his dead body. Later, he wrote the song “Ich Hätt So Gern Noch Tschüss Gesagt” (I would have loved to say good-bye). Even later he died himself of a brain tumour, at the even younger age of 46.
All in all, it is a very tragic story. Among other things, the film has the feel of an obituary. For quite a while it feels like the celebration of Roger’s life is going to end with footage of his most recent concert. But it gradually dawns on you that there is a reason why all his colleagues are speaking in the past tense. It’s not that they’re telling us how he got from there to here, They are remembering scenes from a life which is already over.
For all this, there’s a problem. At some stage in a documentary about musicians, you’re confronted with the question, “but is the music any good?” Now clearly, Eugen was an accomplished pianist and Roger certainly has a decent voice. But just as he dresses like someone twice his age, it’s hardly rock and roll. It’s pleasant enough, and the audience seems to be having a good time, but it’s not really my sort of music.
And what the film does not do is lure you into the Ciceros’ world. I am convinced that the fans will love it, but it doesn’t have much to offer to someone who is not drawn to this music scene. There are countless talking heads, many of whom are undoubtedly very famous to people who know, telling anecdotes about this or that concert. But it doesn’t sound like a concert that I’d kill to be at. And yes, I realise that this is entirely my problem.
Some documentaries make you realise that a subject that you’d considered to be entirely boring is actually more interesting than you think. This is not one of those films. People who already attend the Church of Cicero will almost certainly be entranced by the footage of their beloved singer and the words of those who knew him best. For the rest of us, it’s all a bit Meh. A film worth seeing, but only if you like this sort of stuff already.