James Gandolfini Sings: Remembering, Rediscovering His Cult Movie Musical
The top-of-mind musical associations most casual fans would make with actor James Gandolfini, who died Wednesday at age 51, are probably "Don't Stop Believin'," the Journey ballad that soundtracked "The Sopranos" finale's controversial last scene; or "Woke Up This Morning," the "Sopranos" theme song by Alabama 3; or maybe even Gandolfini's friendship with Springsteen sideman and "Sopranos" actor Steven Van Zandt.
But a small faction of film and music buffs may recall Gandolfini's quirky role in 2005's little-seen cult movie musical Romance & Cigarettes — the opening scene of which featured the tough-guy thespian unexpectedly breaking into song, belting out the Engelbert Humperdinck classic "A Man Without Love."
Romance & Cigarettes was similar to other semi-ironic musicals starring actors who never claimed to be world-class vocalists (Everyone Says I Love You, Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective). The cast members either sang along or lip-synched to the original recordings of hit songs by Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley, and James Brown. In one of Gandolfini's other memorable musical scenes, he and Susan Sarandon murmured the lyrics of Irving Berlin's "The Girl That I Marry."
Directed by actor John Turturro and executive-produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, Romance & Cigarettes starred Gandolfini as a working-class everyman, by the rather "Sopranos"-esque name of Nick Murder, torn between his wife (portrayed by Sarandon) and his mistress, a brassy lingerie salesgirl (Kate Winslet). Pop singer Mandy Moore played one of Gandolfini's daughters; other cast members included Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Mary-Louise Parker, Eddie Izzard, and Amy Sedaris.
Despite its impressive allstar cast and unique concept, Romance & Cigarettes received mixed reviews and never managed to get a wide release. After a limited run overseas and at film festivals, and a two-year delay, R&C finally went straight to American DVD in 2007. According to Fox News, the film cost around $15 million to make; according to IMDB, it grossed barely more than $500,000.
Back then, the only buzz R&C really generated was for a YouTube clip, which received more than 1.5 million views, of Walken singing along to Tom Jones's "Delilah" in one of the film's more bizarre scenes. But it's likely that Gandolfini's extremely charming, guileless "A Man Without Love" performance will be the clip racking up the YouTube hits from now on. Though considered a failure at the time, Romance & Cigarettes has now become a quaint, quirky time capsule of a side of Gandolfini few people ever got to see onscreen.