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Italian Rapper-Pop Star Jovanotti on Composing His First Film Soundtrack for ‘Summertime’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Jovanotti on the Soundtrack for Gabriele
Photo by AGF s.r.l./REX/Shutterstock

Italian rapper-pop star Lorenzo Cherubini, who is better known by his stage name Jovanotti, recently composed his first movie score, handling the soundtrack of his friend Gabriele Muccino’s “L’estate addosso” (Summertime). The coming-of-age movie — mostly set in San Francisco — premieres Sept. 1 at the Venice Film Festival in the new Cinema in the Garden section. Jovanotti, who has sold millions of albums and regularly tops the Italian charts, spoke to Variety about how he tackled this new challenge.

If I’m not mistaken, your collaboration with Gabriele Muccino on “L’estate addosso” (Summertime) stems from your close friendship.

Yes, it all starts from that. Gabriele and I have quite a lot in common. We are the same age, we grew up in quite similar situations, in similar families. We both grew up in Rome on different sides of St. Peter’s Square; maybe his family was a bit more bourgeoisie than mine, and my neighborhood [Porta Cavalleggeri] was slightly more suburban that his [Prati], but they were a stone’s throw from each other.

How did you guys meet?

I had seen his movies of course. I’m not a movie expert, but I felt that he had revolutionized the language of typical Italian cinema, that he’d brought a lot of innovation by telling stories with a different pace; by talking about a changed Italy. He basically invented a new genre that wasn’t comedy. Italy had always had lots of comedies and also lots of movies about social ills. But Gabriele came up with something that was somewhere in the middle, he created a new type of narrative. So, to make a long story short, when I wrote a romantic ballad called “A Te” I contacted him, and asked him if he could make the video for it. He immediately said yes. We talked on the phone for about five minutes, and then he sent me a budget that was, like, 300,000 Euros. So I told him: “What have you smoked? Record companies don’t have those kinds of budgets.” He’d basically written a movie, with actors, action, everything. So we told each other that sooner or later we’d somehow work together.

And that happened not too long afterwards, when you wrote the song for his movie “Baciami Ancora” (Kiss Me Again).

Yes, even though I had decided to take a sabbatical at that time — which I do periodically to write and recharge my batteries — I wrote the song [titled “Baciami Ancora”] and it was a success. And from then on we started hanging out. I went to see him at his home in Rome, then I visited him in Los Angeles when I went there; we spent New Year’s Eve together and we became friends, as these things happen. Unfortunately they happen quite rarely, because it’s not so often that a real friendship is born — one in which you share intimate things about yourselves sitting on a wall. Then a few years ago, Gabriele called me and told me he had written this screenplay for a small movie he wanted to make to get away from all the stress he was going through in Hollywood. He just told me the title: “L’estate addosso,” [which can translate as “Summer All Over Me”]. I am always searching for strong evocative images and titles. I thought, ‘This is great!’ I am always searching for summer songs, because when you get the right one it’s always a super joy. Because summer hits are tied to carefree memories, which are the most important ones. So I said, ‘I like this title, I’m writing a song with this title.’ And I did. And that was before the movie was made, even before I read the script.

But then the song came out before the movie.

Well time was going by, the movie wasn’t made yet, and I had a record coming out. I thought, “I have to have the song in this record because I’ve got big stadium gigs coming up, and I know this is going to be a summer success.” He agreed, and it became a hit. Then after production of the movie got started, he asked me if I wanted to compose the entire soundtrack.

What was composing a soundtrack like for you? What kind of challenge did it pose?

I had never done a soundtrack before. I never thought of myself as the author of an entire instrumental soundtrack for a movie. That’s because I’m more of a traditional songwriter, who almost always starts from the words. That’s the way it’s usually done: you start from a word, or something that moves you. I’d never written instrumental music before, or even thought about it. But I liked the idea because I felt at ease with Gabriele. I told him: “If you don’t like it, no hard feelings. I want to be of service to the film. I want you to guide me through this with your experience, to help me out.”

How did the nitty gritty scoring work take place?

Then I saw the film. Gabriele had put some boilerplate music with the images, which was quite predictable. Songs that he liked; the usual major chords that become minor ones; some strings; some layers of orchestral music. The typical stuff that stirs up emotions in a rather facile way. I told him: “I don’t like this stuff so much. I’d like to do something more indie. I’d like the music in the soundtrack to be the music that’s in these kids’ heads. I’d like to do something simple, with no frills, quick. Why don’t you give me the edited movie without any music, tell me where you want the music, and then I will send you some bits that I’ve done and you can tell me what you think.”

What was his reaction?

Gabriele is used to being in total control of this films, I think he was a little thrown off at first. In the end we had a good time, we found a happy medium. But I started out a bit extreme, I put some electronic stuff in there, I put some things that were more minimalist than what we used in the end. Initially that scared him. Then eventually he came around, told me he really liked what I was doing. He liked the acoustic aspect and told me to go more with that: with the acoustic guitars, with the West Coast mood, given that the core of the film takes place in San Francisco.

How long did the work take?

We did the whole soundtrack in less than a week. I called some trusted musicians whom I often work with [Christian Noochie Rigano and Riccardo Onori]. We holed up in this studio in New York, and we did everything in five days. That’s how I wanted to do it, sort of stream of consciousness. The big limiting factor for me was the fact that most of it is set in the U.S. So I thought that having my voice [in one of the songs] would strain credibility. My voice for an Italian audience has pre-defined connotations. We thought it would be invasive and distracting on the screen. So perhaps going against marketing considerations we made an artistic choice for me to just write the soundtrack, as if I were Paolo Buonvino [Gabriele’s frequent collaborator on movie scores].

This is a fresh movie that evokes what it’s like to be 18. It’s set in various locations: Rome, San Francisco, Cuba. What choices did you make to draw out the youthful emotions in the film, and also to underline its geographic aspects?

One basic choice was to use the musical instrument that is the symbol of summer: the acoustic guitar. The guitar you play on the beach. Then since the movie moves around, it evoked road movies in my mind, and the indie cinema that I love. So I wanted to play up this indie aspect of the film, that makes it different from Gabriele’s more frenetic movies, even though I love them. This is a more personal film for him. Also since the real story it stems from is set in the 1980s. I worked with that in mind. And I worked with the theme of “L’estate addosso,” the song I had written before the movie was made. He told me: “We already have this theme, these four notes that are very evocative. Let’s try riffing on those.” And we did.

What about the repertoire songs, all by relatively unknown indie bands?

Gabriele picked those. Since I just wanted to be of service to the movie and wanted this to be his vision, I told him he should pick any songs that I did not write. And since the actors and their performances are so powerful, even though they are not known stars, it was important that nothing should get in the way of the audience discovering them. Making a movie without big name stars was a bold choice on his part; it means he is using his own firepower. The only big name in the movie is his own. So the idea of using songs that were not so famous — but really cool and good at the same time — also served this purpose. It’s the same reason we did not use my voice singing new material. To not interfere with the young actors. To not be like ball-busting parents with these kids who have to live their own lives.

The film is pretty bold for Italy. It features a gay couple, not that this is so groundbreaking. More importantly, a substantial portion is spoken in English since most of it takes place in the U.S.

Yes. They even tested a version dubbed into Italian, and I told them they were crazy. My advice from the start, and I’m not an expert, was to target a youth audience. This is a story that speaks to young people. And Italian youths are ready for a film with some subtitled parts. If they aren’t ready, let’s make them ready! It’s about time for Italy to have movies in other languages without anyone being bothered. I think the boldest part of this film is not the gay narrative; it’s the fact that it’s an Italian movie in which 30% of the dialogue is spoken in another language. But I do think Italian kids are ready for that.

Getting back to you, there are two surprises in the soundtrack. What are they?

Two new songs that I wrote for the film, both in English and both not both sung by myself. One is a new version of “Pieno di vita,”sung by this girl called Ashley Rodriguez. It’s a cool story because I did try singing it myself in the studio, and then I said: “No, this doesn’t sound right: a male voice with a strong Italian accent; it’s too invasive. Let’s find a young woman to sing it.” So I asked our soundman, who is from New York: “Can you find me a girl singer in half an hour?” He told me: “I heard a girl last night in a club in Brooklyn who was great. This is her name: Ashley Rodriguez.” So we contacted her through Facebook and two hours later she was in the studio. When she arrived at first she was a little taken aback; but then she sang it right away because she really liked it, and so in two hours we were done. The other piece, “Welcome to the World,” I wrote it and this Italian guy Jack Jaselli, who mother tongue is English, sang it. He did it like a 1970s West Coast ballad. I really like it. It was fun doing this soundtrack, because I did it with no pressure. Without the pressure of having to put a hit in it, or having to include songs that would play well on the radio. I was concentrated, but also relaxed.