The words ‘Italy’ and ‘culture’ have gone hand in hand for centuries. The epic verse of Dante; the Renaissance artwork of the likes of da Vinci and Michelangelo; the operas of Puccini and concertos of Vivaldi; the groundbreaking cinema of Fellini and Bertolucci. And, since 1951, the Italian Song Festival of Sanremo.
The festival, held in the Ligurian seaside town from which it takes its name, has tweaked its format over the decades, but its spirit has stayed the same: the biggest Italian singers and bands competing by singing original songs, accompanied by an orchestra, over five nights. The main competition is complemented by a contest for newcomers and interspersed with guest singers, interviews and features.
Even if you haven’t heard of Sanremo, you’ll almost certainly know some of the songs to have graced its stage, perhaps most notably Domenico Modugno’s Nel blu dipinto di blu – also known as Volare – from 1958 and Andrea Bocelli’s worldwide 1995 hit Con te partirò.
But it is not only stellar performances like these that have won the Sanremo a special place on the Italian pop culture landscape, but also its distinctively Italian combo of high-brow and low-brow culture.
This year’s festival was naturally a bit different, with no audience in the Ariston theatre and without the line-up of international guest performers that in the past have included Take That, Whitney Houston, Queen and Will Smith. What was still on show, though, was outlandish costumes, awkward moments and a varied range of memorable songs.
Fiorello keeps the show alive
Each night of the show was fronted by a double act of artistic director and “straight man” Amadeus with comedian Rosario Fiorello. While the former’s slightly awkward charisma had its charm, the show was stolen by Fiorello, who set out his stall by opening the first night singing while wearing purple shades and a cape adorned with roses.
The pair were joined across the week by various co-hosts – including Elodie, who could do with working on her lip-syncing, and Matilda De Angelis, whom international viewers may recognise from HBO drama The Undoing – it was the Sicilian who kept the show’s momentum going across five nights despite the absence of an audience. He kept us entertained with interruptions, improvisations, costumes, songs and phone calls to celebrities – not to mention the constant gentle mockery of his co-host.
Zlatan: Great footballer, underwhelming singer
Zlatan Ibrahimović is a global football superstar. The Swedish striker has played for nine clubs in seven countries, winning more 30 trophies along the way. Even though six months shy of his 40th birthday he is still leading the team at AC Milan, the end of his career can’t be too far away, and ‘Ibra’ has never been shy of promoting Brand Zlatan.
Perhaps that’s why, fresh from stoking a dispute with NBA legend LeBron James, he decided to make an appearance onstage at Sanremo. He appeared on the first night with a very on-brand scripted piece about the new rules for ‘the Zlatan Festival’, including doing away with the orchestra (except the women) and lining up the musicians in two teams of eleven and… you get the idea.
Each of his appearances across the five nights of the festival was a little uncomfortable, including one made after he apparently was caught behind an accident on the motorway and hitched a ride from a passing motorcyclist (who, lucky for him, was a Milan fan). It all culminated in a joint interview with Bologna manager Siniša Mihajlović, which ended with the two football men joining Amadeus and Fiorello in a boy-band style rendition of 1970s hit Io vagabondo.
Abbadeus pic.twitter.com/OTsPG4x6kR— Zlatan Ibrahimović (@Ibra_official) March 5, 2021
It hasn’t gone unnoticed the irony of Ibrahimović having told James only to “do what you’re good at doing” mere days earlier.
Can’t get you out of my head…
When Colapesce and Dimartino got onstage with matching pastel suits and dad-at-a-school-disco choreography, their offering did not initially wow too many people. However, the structure of Sanremo means that each of the 26 performing artists performs their song several times over the week, and by the time it came to Saturday’s finale, the catchy Musica leggerissima – ‘Very Gentle Music’ – was stuck in everyone’s heads. It was also all over everyone’s timelines, with the music set to any number of people dancing, including host Amadeus.
Sadly for the boys, they just missed out on the podium, finishing fourth in the final table. I don’t suppose they’ll mind too much if we keep streaming their earworm.
The car-chase queen
Orietta Berti, competing this year with Quando ti sei innamorato after a 29-year absence from Sanremo, is Italian pop royalty. The 77-year-old has been a prominent artist since the 1960s, and her voice is still powerful and moving.
Sadly for her, it was not the soaring melodies she intoned that made her one of the heroes of this year but a couple of offstage incidents. On one occasion, she confused the names of her co-competitors, calling Ermal Meta ‘Ermal Metal’ and, more egregiously, slipping and referring to rock band Maneskin as ‘Naziskin’ – the Italian term for a neo-Nazi.
The other incident could have been a simple costume change, when she rushed away from the studio to retrieve a gown. However, she did this after midnight – and long after Italy’s strict nationwide curfew of 10pm, leading to a police stop.
We don’t know if the officers recognised her straight away, but after she explained the situation she found herself with a police escort back to her hotel!
Breaking down gender boundaries
If there was a theme of this year’s Sanremo – apart from the unavoidable mentions of the pandemic – it was gender, or challenging the norms thereof. This was reflecting in the lyrics of indie pop-rockers Lo Stato Sociale, who played on Italian having the same word for ‘gender’ and ‘genre’; in the androgynous costumes of Måneskin and Madame; and, for the first time, in the giving of flowers to some of the male guests and performers as well as the women.
But nobody embodied this theme better than singer and rapper Achille Lauro, this year featuring as a guest act rather than a competitor. His transgressive performances included tears of blood, feathered angel wings and his torso pierced with thorny roses.
Nevertheless, the moment that has attracted the most attention came on Friday night. Lauro, half his body draped in white fur, emerged at the top of the stage steps to the sounds of the Italian national anthem and carrying the tricolore flag. He was joined by a figure in a wedding dress whose face was veiled and the two descended the stairs while the anthem was replaced by the wedding march. Finally, Lauro threw back his partner’s veil, revealing a man – musician Boss Dom – who he kissed on the lips before launching into his song.
As Italy is one of the few countries in Western Europe where same-sex marriage has yet to be given legal status, it’s not hard to imagine the statement here.
Our next performer is… Leonardo da Vinci?
Twenty-two years after his first performance at Sanremo, Max Gazzè took to the stage with Il farmacista – ‘The Pharmacist’. While the song did not seem to capture the audience’s imagination – he finished 17th in the final table – he certainly made himself memorable, appearing onstage on the first night in what seemed to be a Leonardo da Vinci costume.
Seeing Leonardo onstage combined with the eerie theremin tones on the track seemed to have quite the effect on the audience – although some thought he looked less like da Vinci and more like Dumbledore or Gandalf.
Max didn’t stop there, appearing on another evening as Salvador Dalí and then, in either a botched or deliberately farcical costume change, Clark Kent/Superman.
And the winner is…
The overall prize was won not by someone with a long track record like Berti or Gazzè, nor by Francesca Michielin and Fedez, who had soared up the classification thanks to the influence of the latter’s wife, social media superstar Chiara Ferragni, but by leotard-sporting rock band Måneskin.
The Roman band – whose name means ‘moonshine’ in Danish, the first language of bassist Victoria De Angelis – were runners up on the 2017 edition of the Italian X Factor, but didn’t suffer the same disappointment this time with their rip-roaring tribute to non-conformism, Zitti e buoni.
Måneskin brought the house down even without a crowd, and this isn’t the last we’ll see of them: as winners, they will represent Italy in the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in the Netherlands in May.