Following an annual song contest, National or European, on TV is one thing, but five nights in a row the Sanremo Music Festival (officially: ‘Festival of the Italian Song’) for four consecutive hours is really a torture. Not for the average Italian however, for whom Sanremo is the annual TV apotheosis. It’s a breathtaking mix of competition, show and passerelle. And an excellent stage for those who want to get publicity.
Two years ago a rapper caused a political riot because Silvio Berlusconi believed his song would advertise the left wing government – his opponent. The following year, other rappers made a fuss by beating up the crew of a satirical TV program. In another year, an unstable festival visitor threatened to throw himself from the highest balcony and anchorman Pippo Baudo successfully set himself up as a savior.
Most of such stunts are staged because it’s all about publicity. Sanremo is of vital importance for the RAI (the Italian state television) that has been struggling for years. The festival, which has been granted to the broadcaster by the municipality of Sanremo, is RAI’s only highlight in the viewing figures. Sanremo is therefore fully milked. From September there is a weekly ‘Destination Sanremo’ where the candidates for the youth version of the festival are selected.
The participants at the main festival, the ‘Big’ in good Italian, are designated by the powerful artistic director. Between January and February when the festival is held, Sanremo ensures constantly headlines. “Leonardo DiCaprio comes for 100 grand” can then be read in the newspaper, or “Britney Spears says yes to Sanremo”. Those foreigners are often stars from the spettacolo, but remarkably enough, the RAI is also interested in VIP’s on their return.
Then, there is the question of which duo host will present the Dopo Festival, the après-ski of Sanremo. And fit the two in one room? A year or so ago, co-presenter Enrico Papi accused his colleague host of using too much obscene language. That would keep viewers away. His colleague’s reply: “Papi is an imbecile”.
For Sanremo, the public broadcaster RAI must hand in the till of the state treasury. It is no coincidence that in the run-up to the festival, the broadcaster is running a campaign to collect television license fees. The foreign stars in particular cost a fortune. Two years ago, the RAI issued a check of 250,000 dollars for a few minutes Bill Clinton playing the saxophone (with ‘a’). The former president did however not show up.
Soccer player Maradonna then wanted to come, and the Italian Fraud Squad was happy to see him coming, but he wisely withdrew. The foreign guests who do come, playback a song and take their seat back in the plane in no time.
In the end, it always comes down to the Italians themselves. Two years ago, the guest appearance of the brilliant, young showmaster Fiorello raised the audience with 3.5 million, last year Roberto Benigni attracted an additional 7 million people. A total of 20 million Italians then watched the performances at the Ariston theater in Sanremo.
For this, ‘Pinocchio’ only had to lift the long-sleeved dress of show girl Manuela Arcuri and raise his gaze and squeeze anchorman Pippo Baudo into his balls. Quite vulgar, but which other ‘ordinary’ guest concludes his performance with a bare stance from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy?
They also do sing at the Sanremo Festival. This year we have among others Bobby Solo and Little Tony, two over-60s with a Elvis Presley look, and three other singers in pensionable age. Sanremo is therefore mainly nostalgia for the good old days of the 50s and 60s when the festival stood for good music.
Everyone still talks about Domenico Modugno’s 1958 triumph with ‘Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu’, better known as ‘Volare’. The young star artist Luigi Tenco has also made an indelible impression. Not because of his singing performance, but because he robbed himself of life during the 1967 festival because he had received too few votes from the jury.
At a closer look, Sanremo actually never bores.
(My 2003 article about the Sanremo Festival that is quite not outdated)