Movies

Luca’s Director Explains Every Italian Pop Hit on Its Soundtrack

Enrico Casarosa breaks down each charming retro song he chose for Pixar’s new movie.

Two boys listen to an old-fashioned record player.
The magic of music in Luca. Pixar

Luca might be a movie about sea monsters, but where the sound of Pixar’s films is concerned, it’s the closest thing to one set in the real world. True, teenage Luca lives underwater with his fish-finned family, but when he steps out of the water and into an Italian fishing village, he becomes a human boy in the very recognizable 1960s, a time period fixed by the pop music that is frequently blaring from tiny portable radios. Where an American coming-of-age movie set at the time would be scored with the rebellious tumult of early rock ’n’ roll, Luca’s soundtrack leans on the sounds of artists like Gianni Morandi and Rita Pavone, whose brassy anarchy has a flavor all its own. We talked to director and co-writer Enrico Casarosa, who based the story on his own childhood memories, about picking the songs and breaking Pixar’s unwritten rule against needle-drops. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Sam Adams: Looking back over the history of Pixar, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say they basically just don’t use pre-existing music—the closest thing is the use of Hello, Dolly! in Wall*E. Did you encounter any opposition pitching Luca’s period songs?

Enrico Casarosa: It’s funny, I didn’t know that. I hadn’t thought about it. I’ll say that in the inception of it, when I imagined the movie early on, I felt like with the genre of movies like Stand by Me or Breaking Away, there’s something about summer where you do need that radio on and that these songs become part of the background. One of the reasons that I loved to put it in that time period was because I love the music that we have there in Italy. I didn’t grow up with it, so it’s probably more like what my mom would listen to, but it’s just so wonderful, these songs.

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With a few exceptions, the songs all come from around the same time period, the early to mid-1960s, which is about 20 years before you were a teenager. Why did you pick that period?

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Nowadays, they’re trying to make the ’80s pretty cool, but if I told you some of the ’80s songs that you would have to put there, I don’t think that’d be terribly inspiring. I also was trying to really convey this small-town life, which is a little more valid in that time—especially in that area where there was so much tourism later on. We also loved the beautiful vehicles. There’s something about 1959 Vespas—they were just perfect, beautiful. Even in terms of the plot, we have sea monsters under an island, and we’re like, “Actually, it would make sense that this is a time where they haven’t been discovered yet.” Scuba wasn’t so popular at the time.

Quartetto Cetra, “Un Bacio a Mezzanotte”

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This song’s from 1945, which is a little before Luca’s time frame, but those opening notes, which we hear before we see anything in the movie, are so effective at dropping you into the past and world of memory.

I thought that the charm was felt pretty quickly. In one of the screenings, the first time we tried the first song you hear over the credits, I remember someone saying, “Oh my god, that is doing so much. I’m just kind of ready. You’re already in this mood and this place.” We were so happy that we found that. The idea here is that it would be a little more old-fashioned, like the fishermen. It was actually our sound designer, Justin Pearson, who put it on one of our playlists, and the first time he’s like, “Do you want to listen to this?” I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” There’s a little bit of romance in there. There’s a kiss that he’s talking about, “a mezzanotte, so there’s even a talk of night, which I like, putting us in this kind of quiet mood.

Maria Callas, “O Mio Babbino Caro”

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That is from Gianni Schicchi, the Puccini opera. My mom was a big opera and classical music person, and I had a nice playlist of opera to think, “What are the ways that we can use that?” There’s such drama. It’s beautiful. We tried a few different other versions and not a single one had the pathos that Maria Callas has in her voice. And of course, we put a dramatic, slow-motion kind of moment over it.

There’s also the reference in the lyrics to a town called Porta Rossa, which is close to the name of your fictional village, Portorosso.

Does she say that though?

She did.

[Looking it up] Porta Rossa, there you go. That’s amazing. I’d even forgotten.

Edoardo Bennato, “Il Gatto e la Volpe”

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This plays over the montage when Luca and Alfredo are building a ramp for their makeshift scooter, and it gives the scene a great, lighthearted energy. But if you understand the lyrics, which are sung by the tricksters in Pinocchio, it’s a bit of a hint that Alfredo is the smooth talker who’s going to get him into trouble.

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That’s our exception [from 1977], in terms of time period. We considered options, and thought, “Do we want to keep it in the ’50s and early ’60s?” But the more I thought about it, there’s just something so special about that song. It’s certainly more something I grew up with. There was something conspiratorial. The song is talking about actually being swindled by the cat and the fox, but in the song, he’s actually talking as an artist who is being conned by two managers. But the way that it makes me feel, it’s much more like the cat and the fox would become Alberto in my mind, so it’s a much more positive, “Come with me, we’re going to have some fun trouble.”

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Con men always have a good pitch.

That’s right. First of all, just bringing Pinocchio in the middle of it felt really great. And then just something joyous and “let’s get in trouble together,” a vibe that I love. It’s been really fun to see it being used in our trailers, which is not something I ever thought when we chose it.

It might just be an accident, but in addition to the song about Pinocchio, there’s a Disney connection to Quartetto Cetra, who apparently sang on the Italian dub of Dumbo.

Oh, wow. I didn’t know that. Edoardo Bennato also did an album called L’isola Che Non C’è, which is “The Island That Doesn’t Exist,” or Neverland, from Peter Pan. Songs about Captain Hook. He was very inspired by fables, and by Disney as well.

Gianni Morandi, “Andavo a Cento All’ora”

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This one’s my favorite. It has this aggressively upbeat, almost grating energy that’s perfect for the introduction of your villain, Ercole.

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It’s a nonsense song, and it couldn’t be better. There’s just something smarmy and wonderfully silly about it that just fit our silly villain. There’s something in-your-face about it. Then I love how it wraps up as he parks his Vespa, which our animators absolutely knocked out of the park.

Mina, “Tintarella di Luna”

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That one’s Giulia. “Tintarella Di Luna” has been used quite a bit, but there’s just something so beautiful about that Mina song. It’s so iconic, and it had a nice energy to it. Honestly, we tried out many songs and they were working, so it goes a little bit into what you can get the rights for and what you can’t. But “Tintarella” felt very wonderful for her, because she’s such a nonstop character.

Gianni Morandi, “Fatti Mandare Dalla Mamma a Prendere il Latte”

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It’s really a joke, but there’s something kind of romantic about it. It’s almost opening into a romance. It worked really well with the falling in love with the idea of owning that Vespa. And “Fatti mandare dalla mamma,” which is actually, again, more of a romance-y kind of summery song: “Tell your mom to send you to get the milk,” so you can see me. It’s very kind of teenager-y.

It’s a pretty silly song in some ways, but it’s also so rooted in that kind of small-town existence: The big plan you have for your romantic rendezvous is to get your mom to send you out for milk.

Yeah. There’s no way to see that girl in any other way. That feels very culturally correct.

Rita Pavone, “Viva la Pappa col Pomodoro”

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Moving on to Tuscan bread soup.

Yeah, la pappa col pomodoro. That one was a fun one because again, another montage, another opportunity for us. We tried so many on this one and we wanted energy, because it’s one of those moments in the movie where they’re trying hard to train and the relationships are getting frayed. Rita Pavone kind of reminds me of Giulia because she was also a ginger and she had this strong tomboy energy. She eats a lot of pasta, and the song is talking about the pappa col pomodoro, so it felt really fun to mix the two.

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I’ll also say what’s interesting about that song, it was written by Nino Rota [who composed the scores for numerous Fellini movies and The Godfather]. And if you look it up, the zither player is Anton Karas, from the soundtrack of The Third Man. I love that it had this vague connection to the movies. It has this still Italian-ish medley, but there’s also, of course, a little bit of Eastern European vibe.

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With that one, there’s a wonderful video too. It’s her singing and dancing around the fountain, which feels a little bit like the square of our town.

I’ve been watching a lot of those clips. It’s not quite as good as the “Fatti Mandare” one where they’re doing the dance with milk bottles, which is kind of unreal.

It’s incredible.

Mina, “Città Vuota”

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This is Mina again, and it’s a cover of Gene McDaniel’s “Lonely Town,” which is kind of a melancholy note to send the movie out on. It plays over the end credits, where you use the My Neighbor Totoro device of continuing the story through a series of still drawings. How did that whole sequence come together?

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When we have a screening at Pixar, they come and ask you, “Do you want any walkout song?” I remember choosing that song as a walkout song at one of our screenings. I remember thinking that was a really good walkout sound. There’s just something about that felt like the ending of something. When we considered it and we started putting the visuals together, which was one of the last things we did, we tried a few different ones. I really wanted something that speaks about friendship and thought it would be great if there’s some thematic connection, but I kept on coming back to this one. I think the reason is that there’s the right feeling here. The lyrics are not really connected thematically: They’re more about being lonely because of a romantic connection. But it always gave me this little bit of a melancholic, sweet but sad feeling. I remember having conversations like, “Well, if I had exactly that feeling in a song that talks about friendship, even better,” but the ones that had that were either more modern or didn’t quite give me the same emotion.

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Were there songs you wanted and couldn’t get or couldn’t find a place for?

We had a couple that were a little hard to get. Adriano Celentano’s “24,000 Baci.” 24,000 kisses. For some reason his rights were tricky. There was also another one by Rita Pavone that I absolutely loved and it was very quirky. We opted to go actually with “Pappa Pomodoro,” but that one was really fun: “Datemi Un Martello,” which is a wonderfully strange cover of … what is it? Give me a hammer or something like that?

“If I Had a Hammer”?

That was fun. A runner-up to “Pappa col Pomodoro,” the same artist and very unusual. She was talking about using the hammer, and there was jealously involved, which we did like, because we had a jealous Alberto. But some of the lyrics are a little violent. That sometimes will make your decision for you because you’re like “Someone is going to look up the lyrics.” It might be a little strange. And it gets even more complicated because the original is connected to the civil rights movement if I’m not mistaken.

Yes, of course.

And was like, that girl, she stole my man, and now I’m going to … She was a very scolding lover.

I cannot wait to hear that.

You’re going to enjoy it because we were like, “I love that song.” And then we looked it up and were like, “Oh, this might be a problem.”

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