Fans of classic Italian films including Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street and the spirit of Fellini's partner in crime-- the female Italian Chaplin who never said die-- Giulietta Masina (as evidenced in Nights of Cabiria), will be drawn to the directorial debut of opera trained singer and actor Robert Davi.
Co-written by Davi and James Andronica, The Dukes-- an old-fashioned independent work that wears both its heart and its Italian influences proudly on its sleeve-- has earned accolades at film festivals around the globe as well as a standing ovation where it screened as an official selection at the prestigious Rome Film Festival. Releasing exclusively in New York City on November 14 before opening in a wider, yet still limited release, it's one of those undeniable people-movers like The Station Agent and Return to Me that will grow in recognition from grassroots and word-of-mouth campaigns once enough people begin to catch on.
Initially, the storyline was hatched in the '70s during the time of an American recession that found countless blue-collar Americans out-of-work including Davi's own father which thematically hit the writer/director on a personal level. Although, dissimilar to some of the dark, antihero laced films that reflected the disconnect of the era (like Paul Schrader's Blue Collar), Davi combined it with the Italian-American experience upon making the acquaintance of Jay Black, a widely known Doo Wop singer whose music had been rendered obsolete with the chart-topping success of stadium rock groups of the '70s.
In the press release for the Cavu Pictures and Sun Lion Films production, Davi explained that, "it wasn't just steelworkers or my father who were being [affected]... by a society changing from an industrial to a technological one-- it was also entertainers." And because "the country was going through a real metamorphosis" that made the circumstances both "personal and societal," Davi realized that he'd found precisely the right key that would unlock the script and give it "a light comic touch," by telling the story of a group of formerly successful musicians struggling to make ends meet who end up resorting to larceny.
And predictably, while they're always on-key when performing, they're completely out-of-sync when it comes to staging a robbery so they enlist the help of a veteran safe-cracker-- (Bruce Weitz) also finding it hard to pay the bills-- in their quest to steal gold out of a dental laboratory.
Yet while the first version of The Dukes was completed three decades ago-- true to its subject matter-- it took a long time for the work to get everyone in tune for the production. And Davi, working both in front of and behind the camera, surrounded himself with a terrific ensemble cast including several other double, triple and quadruple hyphenates like the playwright, actor and director Chazz Palminteri, the actor, writer, producer, and director Peter Bogdanovich and many others.
Easily falling into the likable role as arguably the sweetest Duke--Danny DePasquale--Davi charms us right from the start as the band-leader who dreams of opening his own restaurant with his best friend, band-mate and aspiring business partner George Zucco (Palminteri). Peter Bogdanovich joins the fun as Lou, their endlessly loyal manager, who thinks and speaks in percentages and "in pocket per unit" slang and refuses to give up on the Doo Wop legends, instead trying to find work for the guys along with their former opening comedy act Armond (the late Frank D'Amico) even if it means they have to play tomatoes.
Yet, despite his best efforts, unfortunately the only steady income George and Danny have is pulling shifts in the Italian trattoria owned by their Aunt Vee (Miriam Margolyes). While seductive ladies-man (or man-whore) George is content to drown his sorrows in the large fleshy arms of whatever promiscuous plus-sized woman crosses his path, when their pot-happy friend Murph (Elya Baskin) sends a plane off a runway and loses his job as an airline mechanic and Danny can't pay for his beloved son's dental needs, soon they decide to stage a heist in order to buy their own second chance at the American dream.
Filled with a wonderful soundtrack that's comprised not only of the primary Doo Wop genre which "came out of the [especially Italian] immigrant experience," that Davi likens to "the American equivalent of Neapolitan street songs," it also contains the work of Sergio Bruni, Luciano Pavarotti, and Paolo Conte, as well as a carnivalesque Nino Rota inspired score. Needless to say, midway through the film, I began writing endless underlined notes in the margins reminding myself to "look for the soundtrack." While I've yet to find one, no doubt it will be in high demand but while it's easy for some films to lace together so much wonderful music and thus become overly reliant on just the cheery nostalgic sentiment it evokes, Davi and Andronica's screenplay is equally impressive.
More specifically, it's filled with surprisingly fresh takes on familiar situations. For example, look for Palminteri watching the clock for "just five minutes" to pass after he beds a stranger and Davi following-through on a skeet-shooting alibi, just to name one. Likewise, there are great twists in the story-arc especially late in the picture that prevent it from going by-the-numbers and letting things work out a little too easily and therefore falsely for our protagonists.
While overall, it does begin as a male bonding film as the camera goes around (in a few too many) circles spinning like an out-of-control record around a table as the men converse, it's also bolstered by engaging turns from its female supporting cast including Margolyes' slightly predictable, tough old matriarch restaurateur, The Office's Melora Hardin as Danny's ex-wife as well as the likable Eloise DeJoria as a beautiful, blonde, loyal waitress hopelessly smitten by Palminteri's Geoge but ironically ignored in the Los Angeles setting because of her thin frame.
Frequently funny yet consistently relatable, especially given our current economic climate-- The Dukes is an irresistible feel-great movie that manages to tap right into the resilient, independent, prideful and tough-minded spirit of what it means to be Italian-American. Yet at the same time, Davi's film also celebrates the extraordinary beauty of the culture whether it's in our ability to put family and loyalty first or to sublimate our frustrations into perfect, sweet-sounding musical harmony.