James Gandolfini: 1961-2013



Keith Richards helped illustrate the vulnerability of Tony Soprano



The marriage of music and visuals is a tricky one. Whether it’s television or film, the right pairing of an image with a song or an instrumental can take an already memorable scene and turn it legendary. Or, it can come off as a lazy cop-out. Like anything else with art, it’s not easy.

The Sopranos, through its six-season run, made incredible use of music. The songs chosen, whether as soundtrack music or embedded within the show, always successfully accented a scene or shed light on a character’s disposition. Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” scores a montage that sets the tone for season two, while a live Dean Martin album makes a hilarious appearance at the end of season four.

And, in perhaps the most poignant musical moment in the show’s run, the Rolling Stones’ “Thru and Thru” is cast as the link through all the pieces of Tony Soprano’s life, broken and otherwise, in a gripping final episode of season two. The weariness in Keith Richard’s singing voice is underscored by the knowledge of the many years of hard living he endured to reach that moment where it was even possible to write those words and sing and play that song.

Of all our long-lasting rock and roll icons, Richards is one of the more fully realized characters to grace stages and records. He’s in possession of a supernatural understanding of rhythm and support, writing hundreds of memorable songs, turning a phrase on the guitar, ripping strings off and recasting his instrument while side-stepping the traditional “guitar hero” persona of some of his peers.

He’s also had very public and very real struggles with substance abuse, run-ins with the law, battles with bandmates and tragedy in his immediate family. He’s not a role model, but he is a human of remarkable achievement, and even if he doesn’t deserve outright adoration, he does deserve acknowledgement for his journey and his accomplishments. If the subject matter doesn’t deal with it directly, the weight of all those years are present on “Thru and Thru.”

And that song floated in and out of The Sopranos’ season two finale, one that saw its protagonist make a decision that went beyond friendship and into business. I’m not one for spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, I recommend starting at the beginning and running from there, but the song surveys the scene of his daughter’s graduation, the carnage his decisions have wrought, the signs that his business is carrying on as usual, cutting down anything and anyone that stands in its way.

And as Tony Soprano, there stands James Gandolfini, cooly smoking a cigar with his world at once expanding and crumbling around him. It takes a brilliant actor to properly convey so many emotions, and that moment as much as any was a triumph for Gandolfini as he took the art of television acting beyond what was happening on the big screen.

Gandolfini died on Wednesday of a heart attack in Rome. I was in the press box at TD Garden before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Bruins and Blackhawks for my other writing duties when the news of his death ripped through the seats. I was stunned; he was only 51 years old. And sitting halfway through a re-watching of the entire series (I had just finished season three the night before), his death hit that much harder.

The folks who run the Garden PA responded by playing Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning,” the theme that became inextricably linked with the series as Soprano made his way from New York back into his kingdom in northern New Jersey. But the song I thought of first, after processing the news of a fallen artist as much as I could, was Richards’ “Thru and Thru.” More than just becoming the audio key to one of the more memorable episodes in the show’s run, there was enough of a link in the song’s character to Tony’s that made the choice natural. The folks running The Sopranos knew how to use music. And they found a kindred spirit in that late-period Stones’ classic.

The lyrics of the song, if not fully illustrating the complexity of Soprano’s character, accented the constant struggle he endured in the series’ run, juggling depression and anxiety and rage and morality in every aspect of his life.

“I only found out yesterday
I heard it on the news
What I heard really pissed me off
‘Cause now I got those fucking blues
Yeah I got those awesome blues
Babe, I got those nothing blues.”

Throughout the show’s run, Gandofini expertly portrayed Soprano’s blues as he jumped from his family to his mafia “thing,” from his wife to his goomars, from his friends to his “friends.” He was confused by the reactions of others, he always worked to stay on top and nearly always won his surface battles, yet never stopped feeling like the rug was about to be pulled out from under him.

And it’s that portrayal that those of us who loved the show and loved Gandolfini’s performance are thinking about now. The music used on the show, by Richards and others, were supplementary material in the multifaceted portrait of Tony Soprano. The scripts and dialog were another huge piece. But it all came together because Gandolfini was able to take a monster and turn him into a vivid, breathing human being. For those of us with any kind of empathy, it was hard not to root for him even as he ordered and committed one atrocity after another.

Below the first glance, there’s beauty in nearly everything, in creaky voices over strained telecasters and in the heart of a man who had brought so much destruction in the world. Gandolfini gave much of himself to bring to life a stunning depiction of a tormented man, and it’s that effort and that incredible ability that resonates as much as anything else. He was an incredible artist, and the alchemy he performed on a doomed soul is what I’ll remember when I think of him.

June 22, 2013

E-mail Nick Tavares at nick@staticandfeedback.com