The soundtrack to the latest Disney/Pixar film Luca keeps me coming back to this charming, animated coming-of-age story. The molto bello score with its uplifting motif was composed by Dan Romer, known for his scoring of the Oscar-nominated film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Sound designer Justin Pearson’s work is stellar throughout the film, but what keeps drawing me back are the original Italian songs that punctuate and enhance this delightful story.
Pixar selected seven vintage Italian pop songs, consistent with the mid-twentieth century Italian seaside setting. These are tunes with which most American audiences probably won’t be familiar. The soundtrack also includes a handful of well-placed operatic numbers playing supporting roles. I’ve outlined the action and plot that coincide with these songs in the film, so be aware of spoilers!
So… what’s wrong with you, estupido? Goditi la musica!
“Un bacio a mezzanotte” – Quartetto Cetra
translation: “A kiss at midnight”
This pleasant vocal number plays over the title sequence, and bleeds into the opening action as it plays on the gramophone on a fishing boat when we catch our first glimpse of a “sea monster.”
Quartetto Cetra were a successful Italian pop vocal group active from the early ’40s to the late ’80s. They had actual experience with Disney, having dubbed the choruses for the Italian release of the Disney movie Dumbo in 1948. Reportedly, Walt himself sent the Cetras a nice note, thanking them for their work. I dare you not to be charmed by this tune. O babo bop!
“O mio babbino caro” from Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
sung by Maria Callas
translantion: “Oh my dear papa”
This is the voice that emanates from the “magic singing-lady machine,” the gramophone that we saw sink to the bottom of the bay in the opening sequence. The fishermen on the boat put this song on after “Un bacio a mezzanotte.” This lilting siren song is reprised later on land when Luca, now in human form, “fixes” the magic singing-lady machine (by turning the crank). Luca is then overcome by a vision – a poster of a Vespa.
Maria Callas, the world-renowned Greek American soprano, was an international celebrity and her legacy as the ultimate diva endures. It is appropriate that the gramophone sinks to the bottom of the bay in the film, as the woman in the song would rather drown in a river than be without the man she loves.
“Il gatto e la volpe” – Edoardo Bennato
translation: “The cat and the fox”
This high-energy toe-tapper accompanies a madcap montage of Luca and Alberto bonding on land, building a Vespa and riding it for the first time.
Edoardo Bennato is considered one of the great Italian rockers. In his heyday in the ’70s he was arguably the most popular Italian songwriter, and was sometimes referred to as “the Italian Bob Dylan” owing to his socially-conscious lyrics. “Il gatto e la volpe” appeared on his most successful recording, 1977’s Burattino senza fili (“Marionette without strings”), a concept album based on the Pinocchio fairy tale. The theme of the album is the value of freedom and independence over conformity and compliance with authority, which is also a major theme in Luca.
In this live clip, Bennato shows off his renowned one-man-band chops and plays the original sax part on kazoo.
“Andavo a cento all’ora” – Gianni Morandi
translation: “I was going at 100 per hour”
The seaside village of Portorosso’s resident jackass Ercole may not be your typical Disney villain, but his arrogance and his “two sad little whiskers” make him an engaging antagonist for Luca, Alberto and their friend Giulia. This song is Ercole’s walk-on music, as he rides his beautiful Vespa into the village square.
Gianni Morandi was the early ’60s Italian equivalent of an American Idol achiever, winning acclaim in a number of Italian popular-song festivals. Young Morandi’s dime-store lothario look may well have inspired the design of the Ercole character, who the boys are initially convinced is “Signor Vespa.” The tune pops and rocks with a nifty guitar hook, while the lyrics describe a young man racing to get to his lover. He longs to serenade her and kiss her mouth. But his engine burns out and he has to run 100 kilometers to find her. Andiamo, Gianni!
“Tintarella di luna” – Mina
translation: “Moon tan”
Luca and Alberto follow local ragamuffin Giulia – not Spewlia – and sheepishly query her about how winning the Portorosso Cup could net them a Vespa. Giulia can’t quite suss where these two “out-of-towners” are coming from and turns up this hip tune on the transistor radio strapped to her bicycle as she eases away.
Rock-n-roller Mina combined classic Italian pop with elements of blues, R&B and soul. With her cool, bad-girl style, she was a dominant figure in Italian pop music through the ’60s to the mid-70s, notching 79 albums and 71 singles on the Italian charts. “Tintarella di luna” features a jumpin’ baritone sax and piano groove, while Mina sings about the creatures of the moonlight with their “milk-colored” tans.
In this clip, wearing high-waist slacks with her hair piled high and her collar popped, Mina rolls her hips and twitches just like the King. Tu diventi candida!
“Fatti mandare dalla mamma” – Gianni Morandi
translation: Get your mom to send you
Giulia shows the boys the broke-down Vespa they might afford, if they beat Ercole for the Portorosso Cup — “an epic, grueling, traditional Italian triathlon” featuring biking, swimming and pasta-eating. This tune plays as the boys swoon over the new machine of their desire.
As a result of his song-contest success, Gianni Morandi was signed by RCA Italiana in 1962 at 18 years old. He quickly achieved national stardom with this song and remained a pop-culture darling in Italy for years. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in this jilted-lover, pop-idol burner, but it involves being sent to get milk and breaking someone’s face. Presto, scendi, scendi, amore
“Largo al factotum” from Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky
translation: “Make way for the factotum”
Desperate for the entry fee for the race, Giulia takes her new teammates to meet her father, Massimo, a super-huge “dad human” with one arm and a squint that kills. A local fisherman, Massimo is decapitating fish and preparing the evening meal when the kids arrive. He sings along with this classic aria while cooking. This is one of opera’s greatest hits, sung here by Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a noted Russian baritone. It’s the well-known bit from Barber in which Figaro, the barber, introduces himself.
“Viva la pappa col pomodoro” – Rita Pavone
translation: “Long live pasta with tomatoes”
This peppy little number accompanies a montage of the kids training for the race, while Luca’s parents (now come to Portorosso in human form searching for their son) dump water on all the village children to find the one that transforms into sea-monster Luca.
Rita Pavone, another Italian song-festival success story, became a teen idol in Spain and a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show in the States. This 1965 single extols the virtues of the bedrock Italian staple of pasta with tomatoes, equating an empty belly with the hunger for revolution (un popolo affamato fa la rivoluzion). Her lip-sync performance in this clip downplays the revolution part, but her smooth moves are a revelation.
“Una Voce Poco Fa” from Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
sung by Melody Louledjian
translation: “A voice just now”
This song plays when Luca and Giulia return to Massimo’s after Alberto has revealed himself as a sea monster to Giulia and gone back to his island. This cavatina is sung by Rosina, the leading lady of Barber. The clip features Melody Louledjian, a French soprano of Armenian ancestry.
“Città vuota” – Mina
translation: “Empty City”
This plaintive tune accompanies the closing credits of the film. “Città vuota” marked the return of the rock-n-roll and pop star to television and radio after she was banned by Radiotelevisione italiana due to her pregnancy and relationship with a married actor, which did not conform to the dominant Catholic morality of Italy. The singer pines for a lost love, the loss of whom renders the city empty to her. The lyric suggests the longing Luca and Alberto might feel for those exciting early experiences in “Vespa town.”
Luca captures the energy and spirit of classic Italian filmmakers of the ’50s and ’60s. Director Enrico Casarosa described it as an homage to Fellini and other Italian filmmakers, with additional influence from Miyazaki, the Japanese animation director. You’ll get that feeling, but the super-fun tunes will especially reward your repeated viewings with (or without) your children. As Uncle Ugo would say, “Yes. Good. I recommend it.”
Luca from Disney/Pixar is now streaming on Disney+
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