Granted magical powers to transport myself back to 1994 and change whatever I wanted, I’d look after two things* right away. First up, the baseball strike never happens. Matt Williams hits 63 home runs, Greg Maddux posts the lowest ERA ever relative to his league, and Frank Thomas wins the triple crown. (The Jays don’t three-peat, and widespread PED use is not averted—those ships had already sailed by the time of the strike.) That taken care of, next thing I’d do is look up Robert De Niro and sit him down for a short chat. “Go make Casino and Heat—you’re already contracted for them, and they look promising. But as soon as they wrap, stick to directing and never ever act in another film unless it’s your own.”
What would we have missed? No Louis in Jackie Brown, and that would be a major loss. (“Is she dead?” “Pretty much.”) After that, I’m drawing a blank—I’m sure I encountered some good work in there somewhere, but I’ve forgotten it amidst all the cheque-cashing slumming, most of which I have happily avoided. I don’t even blame him for all of that, I should add—with what he’d done from Mean Streets to Goodfellas already part of film history, he would seem to be entitled to a little cheque-cashing. A lot, even.
De Niro was one year removed from A Bronx Tale in 1994, his first director credit (and, to date, one of only two; he would later direct The Good Shepherd in 2006). I’m guessing that I went to it at the time with a certain amount of heightened expectation—he’d had relatively few missteps of any kind in his career up to that point—more or less ensuring that I’d be disappointed. Which I think I was; I immediately forgot the film and never went back for a second look.
AMC was playing it recently, though, and I wandered in where aspiring small-time hood Calogero was driving along through neighborhood streets with the top down and the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” on the radio. Hooked me immediately. Couldn’t be simpler—with the post-Mad Men soundtrack (and that’s basically how I view this blog, post-Mad Men, in spirit if not always in fact), most of what I write about here has been placed very deliberatively, oftentimes even conceptually, and I’m all for that, hence the blog—but this felt like a welcome throwback to what I used to derisively call the Flamingo Kid soundtrack, where the beginning and end of a song’s purpose was to fix the date and the mood. Especially the date: “Oh, ‘Happy Together’—it’s 1967.” In any event, this time it worked. Maybe it was the song (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’” belongs to a genre that Elaine Benes and I like to call Swoon-Worthy), maybe it was the red convertible Calogero was driving, I don’t know. It felt like an authentic moment.
The first third of A Bronx Tale, which lays the foundation for the rest of the film with a couple of formative events from Calogero’s childhood, begins in the early ‘60s. “It felt like there was a doo-wop group on every corner back then,” Calogero says in Goodfellas-style voice-over, and indeed, when I caught part of the film again a couple of days later (AMC tends to run films multiple times), I rather comically thought “Wow, how come nobody ever mentions how much Goodfellas was influenced by this?” Probably because the influence, not surprisingly, flows in the other direction, slavishly so at times—Junger Fever is also very much in the mix.
The film is on sure footing with the doo-wop (sometimes literally located on the corner) of those early scenes. De Niro does some inventive stuff with Dion & the Belmonts’ epic “I Wonder Why” over the opening credits, syncopating the song’s vocal gymnastics with street-level games of stickball and leapfrog, before immediately segueing into the Cleftones’ “Little Girl of Mine” (which I initially mistook for Curtis Lee’s “Pretty Little
Angel Eyes”). Sometimes De Niro gets overly schematic with the soundtrack: doo-wop for Calogero and his friends, Sinatra and Dean Martin for the neighborhood wiseguys, WIlson Pickett’s “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” and Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford’s “I Need Your Lovin’” for the black kids whose incursions into the neighborhood infuriate and disorient Calogero’s buddies (but not Calogero himself). And then there’s Calogero’s father Lorenzo, played by De Niro: he’s the only bus driver in the world who listens to Kind of Blue and Coltrane while on duty. That sounds sarcastic—it actually works, and the commuters seem okay with it too.
The two musical highlights for me both center around Jane, the black girl Calogero is mesmerized by (Scorsese again) after spotting her on the bus. After a couple of sequences where they exchange meaningful glances—a street-corner version of “I Only Have Eyes for You” on the soundtrack—he gets up his nerve and approaches her one day for a painfully awkward non-conversation. (“So you wait for your brother, huh? That’s great.” “What’s so great about it?” “‘What’s so great about it?’ It’s just great.”) Jane adjusts Calogero’s hat, they agree that they both have beautiful eyes, and then, having just snuck back into the background, the street-corner “I Only Have Eyes for You” morphs into the real thing, the Flamingos. This is at least the third film I can think of (along with American Graffiti and Heart Like a Wheel) that makes memorable use of the song—much like it’s impossible to record a bad cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “I Only Have Eyes for You” is soundtrack-proof. Later, after some miscommunication, Calogero and Jane reconcile as the Impressions’ “I’m So Proud” plays. Notwithstanding that Jane seems to give Calogero a pass on something I would think might be unforgiveable, the scene dovetails nicely with “For Your Precious Love” earlier in the film, when Calogero talks to neighborhood legend Sonny for the first time.
When De Niro turns the soundtrack over to rock music, his choices are much more pedestrian, especially “Come Together” (I’ll admit to some bias there—among my least favourite Beatles songs), “You Really Got Me” (which feels all together wrong in context), and the 732nd appearance of Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” in a movie. The Young Rascals are better, and I actually liked “Nights in White Satin” for a key scene where Jane’s brother gets beat up by Calogero’s friends. The song isn’t supposed to be ominous like the Beatles or Hendrix; it speaks more to the sadness and inevitability of the assault.
All in all, well worth the revisit. I see that Lillo Brancato, who plays the teenage Calogero, went on to appear in five episodes of The Sopranos’ first season; no recollection of his character (Matthew Bevilaqua) at all. Robert De Niro went on to…well, that’s where we came in.
*I know—Trump. Fix that problem first. I understand.