You Have Been Watching… Strictly Sinatra

Welcome to You Have Been Watching, a weekly feature looking at the good, bad and ugly (but mainly the good) of Scottish Film past. Some of these films will have been mentioned before on these pages, (see Top Ten Scottish Films of the 00’s…) but I intend to look at all the featured films in more detail than I may have done previously.
For some people Scottish cinema consists of Trainspotting, Braveheart, Local Hero, Whisky Galore, whatever happens to be a particular favourite and little else. From early Powell and Pressburger and Ealing, through the madness of Brigadoon, the badness of the 1970s and the Forsyth dominated 1980s, to the renaissance of the last 20 years I hope to point you in the direction of some rarely seen work, remind you of movies you had perhaps forgotten, and also discuss the more well known films.
First off the shelf is Peter Capaldi’s directorial début feature film Strictly Sinatra, for which he was also the writer. Capaldi had already had success with Soft Top, Hard Shoulder (see Soft Top, Hard Shoulder, rarely seen…) and the Oscar winning short Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, both of which he wrote. Released in 2001, Strictly Sinatra took two of Glasgow’s more offbeat obsessions, namely gangsters and Ol’ Blue Eyes, and threw them together. Ian Hart plays Toni Cocozza, a Sinatra impersonator who, in a very prescient scene, is told that he is too old for TV talent shows and that his chance at the big time, or any time, is over. His luck, if you can call it that, changes when he becomes the chanter of choice for some of Glasgow’s gangster fraternity. Just like Sinatra he starts to believe he belongs in such company.
Hart is the main man, and his portrayal of Cocozza as a meek everyman, whose anger and self-pity at how life has turned out is barely suppressed, is a stand out, but he is supported by a very strong cast. Brian Cox, Tommy Flanagan and Jimmy Chisholm are impressively dangerous and sleazy, and Kelly Macdonald shows once again that she has an effortless screen presence, although is underused as Toni’s potential saviour. However there are three inspired pieces of casting which raise the film above merely good. Playing the ageing Glaswegian Godfather and his glamorous moll are Iain Cuthbertson and Una Maclean, and they manage to balance a sense of tenderness between each other, and the promise of violence to whoever may cross them. The scene where Toni sings The Lady is a Tramp at their house is genius. If The Sopranos had been set in Glasgow they could have been a central piece of casting.
Alun Armstrong plays Bill, Toni’s keyboard player and mentor. As Toni’s life threatens to unravel Bill is the man who stands by him, and, even when denied and decried by his charge, is there to pick up the pieces. The sense of decency and warmth jumps off the screen whenever he is on and you soon realise that Armstrong is the heart of the film.
This is a clever and darkly humorous film which is more complex and quirky than it may appear at first, and which has some superb set pieces. In the hands of another director it could have been formulaic, overly reliant on violence and simply nothing we had not seen before. Unfortunately not many saw it anyway as it came and went in the cinema, the fate of many of the films that will feature here, and Capaldi left directing behind to concentrate on his acting career. While that has been a notable success I feel it is a shame he hasn’t made more films. From the few he was involved in as writer, director or both I got the sense that he had some great work ahead of him. Perhaps one day he will prove me right. Here is the trailer, with a slightly incongruous American voice over:

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