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Turturro Spotlights Naples Music, Directs Woody’s Broadway Play

John Turturro
John Turturro directs the sequence for "Don Raffe" in the film "Passione," Turturro's tribute to the kaleidoscopic music and people of Naples. Source: Squeezed Heart Productions via Bloomberg

In “Passione,” John Turturro’s musical tribute to Naples, singers and dancers perform on balconies, beaches, mountains and street corners.

“Music is everywhere in Naples and I wanted to reflect that,” said the 54-year-old actor. “I didn’t want a bunch of songs recorded in a studio.”

“Passione,” which opened yesterday in New York, turns 23 tunes into mini-dramas that vividly portray timeless themes of love, betrayal and injustice. Styles range from jazz and pop to classical and soul.

Turturro, who directed and narrates the film, wants people to appreciate the vibrancy and passion of the southern Italian city that many tourists avoid because of its reputation as a dirty, crime-ridden place.

“Sure, it can be dangerous,” he said in an interview last week. “There’s a lot of crime and they have crazy drivers. But there’s also tremendous life. They have a great sense of fatality and irony, which is why Naples has produced so many great artists. It reminds me of New York in the 1970s, which was also dangerous but very creative.”

Growing up in a music-loving Italian-American family in New York, Turturro listened to all kinds of songs.

“We had Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald in our house, but we also had James Brown and Janis Joplin,” he recalled.

Music Capital

Turturro wore jeans and a light blue shirt as he relaxed on a sofa in the lobby of a condo building in his native Brooklyn. He has curly salt-and-pepper hair and wears dark-rimmed glasses that give him a professorial look.

Warner: There’s a lot of great music in Italy. Why choose Naples?

Turturro: Naples is the musical capital of Italy. It was a classical musical center and later it was a place where classical and popular music mingled.

Warner: You describe each song as a “small screenplay” or an “emotional postcard.” What do you mean by that?

Turturro: The performers are storytellers with fountains of experience. For instance, the band that sings “Vesuvio” actually lives at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.

Warner: Your brother, Nicholas, and your cousin, Aida, are also actors. Did you put on your own plays as kids?

Turturro: I come from a very expressive family, so it’s really not surprising that we became actors. There was a lot of real-life drama in our house. Some of it was drama, some of it was comedy and some of it was comic-tragedy.

Spike, Coen Brothers

Warner: You’ve done nine films with Spike Lee and four with the Coen brothers. What’s their special appeal?

Turturro: I’ve worked with a lot of other great directors, like Robert Redford and Franceso Rosi. But Spike and the Coens have just written a lot of good roles for me. We’re all about the same age, so maybe that’s part of it too. It’s nice to work with people who know and trust you.

Warner: You made your reputation in quirky, small-budget films, but in recent years you’ve done bigger Hollywood movies like the “Transformers” series. Does this signal a major career change?

Turturro: No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s just that these opportunities came along. I didn’t become an actor to be in those kinds of movies, but doing them enables me to do the other things like plays and “Passione.”

Woody’s Play

Warner: You’ve got three movies coming out this month: “Passione,” “Cars 2” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” How did that happen?

Turturro: It’s just an accident. Sometimes that happens and then you don’t have anything for a whole year.

Warner: So what’s next?

Turturro: This fall, I’m going to direct three one-act plays on Broadway written by Woody Allen, Elaine May and Ethan Coen. And I’m hoping to direct a movie in the spring. I like to mix things up.

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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