Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Theme to Remember: The Godfather

Photos from the Internet

While waiting for the extremely crowded train at 7th Avenue at 6 pm for a long, long, l-o-n-g time (and this is before the impeding service cuts), I heard someone whistle a tune. It was instantaneously recognizable, even though produced off-key, and had been first brought to the public over 35 years ago: Nino Rota’s “Speak Softly Love,” more commonly known as “The Love Theme from The Godfather” (1972).

I was living in Bensonhurst in the early 1970s, which was still heavily populated with Italians and Italian-Americans (these days it is much more diverse). A hew and cry went throughout the neighborhood, including petitions, phone calls to promote protests, and a general sense of agita in the streets. A movie that depicts Italians once again as mobsters was being made! People called out with complaints of stereotyping.

When The Godfather finally came out, within a month it was hard to walk a few blocks without hearing a car horn modeled on the first two bars of the theme. That went on for quite a while, though it did not increase with each of the two sequels: that mania had passed by then, but the theme became synonymous with New York and Italians, as much as Frankie’s cover of “New York, New York.”

[The erhu]
If one regularly travels the mismanaged subways, there is a good chance you will hear it on every imaginable instrument. I have listened to it on guitar, violin, steel drum (a lot), recorder, pan flute, flute, cello, and even the Chinese erhu, and those are just the ones I can think off in 10 seconds.

For me, the tune is not an “Italian” association per se, but for the mob. It is sort of a code “word” for gangsters of any nationality, or gangster-like behavior. If I see something suspicious, such as a storefront that has been around for a long time while never seeing anyone inside (hinting of money laundering), my friends and I will start humming in a minor tone, “De-da-da-de-de-DAH-da-de-da-DAH…”

One day I was hanging out with a friend at Tommy Calandra’s upstate New York studio, BCMK (Buffalo College of Musical Knowledge), watching someone recording. Tommy mentioned that some guys had been around asking if he wanted a partner, and was confused on why they asked that. My friend and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, and I hummed the theme. Tommy, good guy that he was, had no idea what the humming was all about, so we told him. Fortunately, I’m happy to say that nothing ever came of the whole incident.

Whatever Peter Griffin thinks of the film itself, the theme certainly does not insist upon itself.

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