Interviews by Christine Thompson
Andrea Bocelli’s improbable beginnings as a boy born with poor sight on a farm in Tuscany to international opera star with over 80 million records sold is chronicled in this film THE MUSIC OF SILENCE. Directed by Michael Radford, it stars Toby Sebastian (Game of Thrones), Antonio Banderas, and Jordi Mollà. Radford deftly directs Toby Sebastian as the singer’s alter ego “Amos Bardi,” actually a young Bocelli from the ages of 15-34. Sebastian’s resemblance to Bocelli as well as affected facial expressions and mannerisms are quite remarkable, as is Antonio Banderas performance in the role of “The Maestro,” a music teacher.
The feisty, headstrong young Amos is introduced to the gift of music by his Nanny, when she gives him a Franco Corelli record. It calms him and fosters a direction and desire for Bocelli to become a tenor – at the age of seven. He becomes completely blind at age 12 after an accident during a football game, but he wins the Margherita d’Oro in Reggiano for a rendition of “O Solo Mio,” a regional competition. His family press him to pursue law school.
He never gives up on his dream, playing piano in a bar while a student, and one day a music teacher (Banderas) agrees to take on Bocelli, instituting stringent rules for saving his voice. The determination to succeed overrides all other desires as Amos struggles to make it in an industry well-known for it’s capricious whims of fate, eventually succeeding after being introduced to Italian pop star Zucchero, who gives him his first break at the Sanremo Music Festival with “La Miserere,” originally envisioned for Luciano Pavarotti and Zucchero.
This is a two-part interview as AMFM Magazine talks to both Toby Sebastian and Director Michael Radford about this beautifully portrayed biopic of one of the world’s greatest singers.
Writer/Director Michael Radford Interview
AMFM MAGAZINE: Andrea Bocelli’s family…how much direction did you take from them or were you able to control the whole thing? If so, were there any scenes he wanted to have a certain way?
MICHAEL RADFORD: Nothing like that at all. Apart from being blind, he has a different vision of things than anything else.
There were a couple of moments which didn’t really change anything. Actually, he asked me to write in after the shooting… the scene where he gets emotional and gets on a horse and rides hell bent for leather through the woods. That’s something he actually does…so I wasn’t unhappy to put those scenes in.
He was very collaborative throughout with the singing. I mean, all the singing is his, pretty much. All that’s meant to be him is him. For instance, him singing badly and practicing and singing his pop songs he used to write, and practicing with Anotonio Banderas and practicing scales, that’s all him.
AMFM: The editor you’ve got is fantastic, couldn’t tell if it was or wasn’t Toby. Loved the cinematography, loved the area of Italy you filmed… the story itself is very inspiring. But there was something missing that I as an Andrea Bocelli fan didn’t understand, though. My first attention was drawn to him when he was singing with Sarah Brightman. The very end he sings “Time To Say Goodbye,” or “Con Te Partiro” but we never see her.
MICHAEL: I really had to take the movie to the point where he stopped suffering and became a name. That happened when he did this concert with Zuccherro. The italian rock singer. He looks like a mixture of van morrison and joe cocker. He’s got a fantastic voice. That really was the moment.
The other thing was that Zucchero’s agent at the time wasn’t very nice, and didn’t treat Bocelli well. When Zucchero heard Bocelli was treated badly. he was very upset.
In fact Zucchero asked if he could be in the movie…which he’s not, it’s a double. The only thing I could tell him was look, the only thing you can do is there’s this telephone call where you tell him you really need him but if you want to be at the other end of the telephone well…he said absolutely, I will do that myself. So I’m a fan of Zucchero, but not generally of Italian pop, but he’s pretty damn good.
He wrote this thing called “Miserere” and they played in front of 100,000 people, and Andrea never looked back after that moment – that was when it really came to a climax in his life. He also had to wait almost ten years to do that, he was nearly 40 when he did it, and out there since he was 30.
He had to wait a long time for people to take notice of him.
AMFM: That’s generally the life of an artist, it happens when it happens, and you can not put a timeline on creativity. The music world is a pretty harsh world.
MICHAEL: It is. It definitely is. They’re very harsh to Andrea afterwards too. They tend to say he’s not a proper opera singer, he’s a crossover artist. But then I think if that’s true or not it’s irrelevant to me. If he is a crossover artist so what! He gives a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. There are very few people who can do that. I’m thinking of the great tradition of crossover artists, I was thinking of someone like Nelson Eddy, or Mario Lanza, Richard Tauber…great operatic tenors who made a fantastic career in the movies singing in concert to people.
It’s a great thing. Andrea Bocelli brings classical music and semi-classical music to a huge, huge number of people.
AMFM: Yes, who otherwise wouldn’t hear it.
MICHAEL: Who would otherwise would not hear it. I We didn’t use Sarah Brightman in the film, but we didn’t have her in the film obviously as we didn’t reach any point in the film where he would have had sung with her. In fact it was way before any of that happened. The next thing that he did was he went off to Sanremo to sing a rock song and try to be Zucchero.
AMFM: Ha ha ha. That’s funny.
MICHAEL: His great hit, “Con Te Partiro,”
AMFM: I love that
MICHAEL: It’s a lovely song, I love it too. he didn’t want us to use it in the movie, so we put it on the end titles. The interesting thing about that is he went to the Sanremo song festival with that as well and didn’t win anything with it.
MICHAEL: (laughs) And yet it became this HUGE hit.
But really it was his struggle with blindness those moments when he was struggling with his voice, he didn’t know whether he could sing or not, and his struggle to make, if you like, from a dramatic point of view it’s much more interesting.
AMFM: Actually that was very very well done. I have to tell you, I have a son that went blind at 14. He had a different condition…Kerataconus. He had a corneal transplant one year, and the next had another on the other eye. Now he can see and he’s very successful, but the thing is, the struggle that you portrayed with Andrea Bocelli is definitely real. They become a real pill in the family, they’re very angry about what’s happened to them, and they act out in many different ways. But they also become very successful in other ways, because they have to work twice as hard, or maybe even more, four times as hard as everyone else to prove themselves in a world that of the sighted. I thought that the portrayal of the struggle you directed was excellent, really well done. Especially where the mother is crying. I almost did the same myself when I found out why my son was acting out and why he was misbehaving. That scene, as a mother, struck me right through the heart.
MICHAEL: Thank you very much. I did a lot of research into blindness. Andrea has a way of comporting himself…he hates to embarrass other people, a lot of blind people feel that way, they don’t want to embarrass other people, so they pretend they can see in some strange way, it’s really interesting He spent hours with me I have video on my iphone where Andrea is showing me how he does things, like how to sit down in a chair. Without people realizing how he’s found the chair. People don’t realize he’s just reaching under the table with his foot to find the chair leg. Little things, but when he does it in a swift movement they don’t know.
AMFM: Back to the film, Antonio Banderas was impressive as the teacher, why him as the choice?
MICHAEL: Somebody said we need a big star in this movie. Because Antonio is very well known in Italy, and he speaks Italian, but actually he is such a good actor. He is the nicest, most fabulous person to work with. Why Antonio Banderas? Why not? I would use him again in any move again, he was such a wonderful guy to work with and a terrific actor who took the role very seriously. Great to work with.
AMFM: What as a director would you like people to take away from this film?
MR: What I like to bring to any movie I make is a level of humanity. I would like them to think this is not a sentimental movie. Just think, these are real human beings living their lives. I got the actors to try and act in as naturalistic way as possible…not play at being Italians, but be the Italians they actually were…and to choose faces that would not necessarily who you would choose if you were making a glamorous movie. To get across that this is a story about humanity. This small family whose son was born completely blind, and this extraordinary story happened to them. I don’t want it to seem like a miracle or anything like that…although Andrea Bocelli is very religious. It’s about humanity – the humanity of his family, the humanity of the people around him…I cast them very carefully.
AMFM: Speaking of casting, when I was talking to Toby earlier, he said he only had five days there with Andrea. I was amazed at his facial expressions and mannerisms were very good. The way he walked and talked. I’m sure that your directing had something to do with that as well.
MICHAEL: When Toby walked into the room, I chose him immediately. I didn’t try out any other actor for the role. One, he did look sufficiently like Andrea Bocelli…although he’s not as tall. Andrea is very very tall. But those sorts of things don’t matter in the cinema. Toby is a really really conscientious actor, and a very good one. He’s such a nice guy, and has a great future, I’m sure of it.
Toby Sebastian Interview
AMFM MAGAZINE: Toby, are you an Andrea Bocelli fan?
TOBY SEBASTIAN: I knew of Andrea Bocelli, I knew “Con Partiro” and “Miserere.” I knew how successful, loved and important he was to the world. But I was not a listener, really before I took this role.
AMFM MAGAZINE: What kind of music do you listen to?
TOBY: I listen to generally the stuff I grew up on that my parents had…I listened to Cat Stevens, Tracy Chapman, Ron Stand, The Kinks, David Bowie, The Beatles… Al Green (I love soul), Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles. Then modern day stuff, I love Bon Iver, tons, the list goes on. A combination of lots and lots of different stuff, and my music. It all comes through in weird and wonderful ways.
AMFM: Tell us a little bit about your own music.
TOBY: My music is always changing, forever changing. Generally it starts with me on an accoustic guitar. Normally a Spanish guitar, because I lived in Spain for three years, and I took flamenco lessons…I don’t play flamenco, but that’s what I started with. Certain rythnms, flamenco and always flows into my music. It always starts with me on a guitar singing, and goes into soul, progresses into soft rock – mainly accoustic stuff.
But my dream is to release a chain of albums…My original album is not available anymore. I’m hoping the second will come out int the next year or two, and then we’ll see which way the wind blows.
AMFM: Is there a way to get that first album to have a listen to it?
TOBY: Not at the moment, but I’m going to make sure that it can be listed to very soon.
AMFM: How did you prepare for the role of Andrea Bocelli?
TOBY: I had seven weeks. If I had it my way I would have had a year or two, ‘cause it’s such a big thing to take on. But playing someone who is so well known and in the public eye, I had tons and tons of footage that I could watch to pick up his mannerisms from that…the way he spoke and the way he moved. Best of all was going out two weeks before I started filming in Rome, and going up to the Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany and going to where he lives by the sea and spending five days with him. Then also going up to the hills in Lajatico where he grew up. I spent five days drinking wine and listening to him sing, while laughing hysterically. From doing that he let me film him a bit, so I could see the way he moved, the way he spoke, the way he walked through the door of his house with such confidence. He was never ever for a second hesitant. You can learn a lot by being around someone. I think I learned the most doing that. Those five days
AMFM: You picked up a lot in those five days, you did a great job acting as him. It’s uncanny.
TOBY: Thank you so much, that means a lot.
AMFM: Well, yes of course. The singing in the film itself, that isn’t you is it or is it dubbed in?
TOBY: No, the singing is Andrea Bocelli, but as I was doing it II was singing.. Not .miming, but singing for real…If someone mimes, then you can see that their throat isn’t working. I did sing on set. They would play one of the songs back and I would count, it’s technically quite hard, but we got there. I would joke when people would say “Did you sing?” and I replied “No, they had someone better.”
AMFM: Then the editor did a great job too, I was watching closely and really couldn’t tell if it was you or him. Let’s talk about the film itself…was anything that surprised you?
TOBY: Playing blind surprised me. Playing him surprised me. Because in the beginning I’d worried that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So many things to do… age from 15-34…move like him, sound like him, sing like him. Trying to do it without hurting anyone or upsetting anyone with my portrayal. I think what did surprise me is that once when I was a few days in, and having had such a warm welcome from him…I felt at home, it felt very normal and It felt right. And also working with a very giving person like Jordi Mollà who is now a dear friend and Anotonio Banderas, who was as good as you could have hoped him to be if not better both in person and in talent.
AMFM: I was impressed with Antonio Bandera’s portrayal of the teacher. It was great, and I’m hoping for good things for this film.
Look for Toby in Game of Thrones, and upcoming film “Trading Paint,” a dirt track racing movie with John Travolta and Shania Twain.