A needle drop is more than just the use of a popular song in a film—it’s an affecting moment that ignites our senses, bringing the visual medium to artistic heights. “Needle Drop” is a monthly column that will explore such moments, looking at how a variety of films across genres use pre-existing songs to colour a scene.
Directed by John Turturro, Romance & Cigarettes has several off-beat needle drops. The film is an idiosyncratic mix of kitchen sink realism and comic opera wrapped in a Dennis Potter style musical. Such eccentricity led to a limited theatrical release and difficulty finding a distributor. At the time of its release, the film was quite polarising: critics either loved or hated it. Seattle Pi writer William Arnol wrote, “it’s just as numbingly dreadful and an even more grueling experience to sit through because, besides being inept, it’s also pretentious and boring: an ambitious art film gone horribly wrong.” On the other hand, Roger Ebert gave it four stars, lauding it as “a film that breaks out of Hollywood jail with audacious originality, startling sexuality, heartfelt emotions and an anarchic liberty.”
Turturro’s film is set in blue-collar New York suburbia and tells the rather simplistic tale of a philandering husband (James Gandolfini) torn between his suffering wife (Susan Sarandon) and the randy temptations of his fiery mistress (Kate Winslet). Romance & Cigarettes has a pulp sensibility in its vulgar dialogue and cartoonish characterisation. By the end, it veers from raucous comedy to bittersweet pathos when Nick’s smoking habit catches up with him.
The needle drops in Romance & Cigarettes are quite different from other films, particularly the musical genre. Popular song recordings do not serve as a non-diegetic score (a song that is on the soundtrack that the characters cannot hear because it is not a part of the story space) nor as strictly diegetic source music (a song that plays within the story space that characters can hear), but something entirely different. Rather than just having the characters sing the pop songs themselves à la Moulin Rouge, the characters sing them karaoke style. They sing along to the soundtrack of their lives in musical sequences that help them uncover their stalwart, working class emotions. Through this unique device, Turturro’s quotidian milieu springs to life in the most exhilarating way.
There are numerous needle drops in the film, but the opening is what grabs audiences’ attention the most and lets them know that they are in for an entirely unique cinematic experience. After getting into a domestic brawl with his wife where he denies having a mistress (a bald-faced lie), Nick (Gandolfini) walks out onto his front porch and starts, ever so quietly, half-speaking, half-singing Eugene Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love.” He vulnerably warbles through gritted teeth, “I cannot face this world that’s fallen down on me. So, if you see my girl please send her home to me.” In this line, he seems to blame his wife for being emotionally distant and upending his life when he is the one having an extramarital dalliance. “Tell her about my heart that’s slowly dying. Say I can’t stop myself from crying,” he wails like a martyr to the empty streets. As if his pain is so great that he cannot bear to sing alone any longer, Humperdinck comes to accompany him, tuning out Gandolfini’s hushed wavering with his resonant sound.
Suddenly, the sanitation workers, electricians, gardners, and other blue collar neighbourhood workers join Nick and sing along to the hammy chorus in a “collective voice [of] sympathetic brotherhood,” as writes Stephen Holden in The New York Times. The men break out into West Side Story-esque balletics as a physical expression of their aching loneliness. “Every day I wake up, then I start to break up, knowing that it’s cloudy above. Every day I start out, then I cry my heart out. Lonely is a man without love,” they croon, their desire for a stable, loving relationship so potent that they must burst into song. But their yearning for romance cannot compete against their passionate lust. Overwhelmed by their longing for a companion, the men cling to a fence for dear life as the neighbourhood women dance seductively on the other side, wiggling their butts up against the camera. The sex-drenched male gaze that permeates the rest of the film even applies to this sentimental musical sequence.
Ironically, Nick sings of being lonely without love while simultaneously sabotaging his marriage with his involvement with the libidinous Tula. Tuttorro uses classic Madonna vs. whore tropes to frame Nick’s struggle between his wife and mistress. By the end of the film, he discovers that he was lonely without the true love of his wife, the one who would be there for him the most during his sickness despite the time he wasted on betraying her with purely carnal pursuits. The film’s opening is short, but it really sets the tone for Tuttorro’s eccentric melodrama. Romance & Cigarettes has a very elementary, occasionally misogynistic, impulse that is amplified by the film’s histrionic style. Turturro fashions a kinky MGM musical that is so bizarre you can’t help but be intrigued.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.
Categories: Needle Drop