James Gandolfini’s final film: a glorious exploration of addiction

Hamm’s Green Room

Clyde is an actor-cum-celebrity, a musician and sometime professional actor. Not to sound too oblique, but let’s just say his life is full of bêtes noires. Not your usual standard rock biopic, per se, even if it does lean on all the clichés – the drugs, the sex, the 1970s, the rock star ambitions, the Black Power, The Godfather, Stand By Me – with one fresh twist. We never actually meet Clyde himself, or the woman who tempted him away from his wife and family. Instead we’re presented with a life narrated by Clyde’s budgie Huey.

In his green room in a Queens rock club, Huey is glaring at his reflection in a mirror. “I’m looking in the mirror and I’m feeling like Clyde,” he purrs, “so I’m seeing myself as Clyde, when Clyde was pretending to be himself. Not really myself, but me.”

This period piece begins at the height of black power, in 1968, when Huey is undergoing his initiation in the black club. Although the name of the club is a mystery, it’s known to be hosting a gig by the Wu-Tang Clan, a band led by the self-titled Wu-Tang Clan. It’s Clyde who introduces himself, moves Huey on to the men’s toilets, and casually explains to the camera that Huey has been drinking the Wu’s Lazer, a potent concoction. “This is the dirty white thing,” he says. “Give him some water, good for the head. Good for the rest of the body.”

The rest of the film follows Huey, trying to fit in, trying to fit in with this clique of hard rock fans, who he promptly starts interacting with. It’s an uneasy mixture of admiration and fear – Huey as a new kid on the block, and Clyde as the grown man that he has become.

Alex and Clyde arrive to do some press for the album, but it is only a short step from there to drug dealing, to crack-smuggling, to helping a super-addict brother beat drug addiction. A concert (a date night to be sure) is when Clyde makes his first fatal drug decision, in the pub of his own accord.

But the film never quite finishes there. It brings the drug use with it. Music is the drug of choice when you’re trying to cope with the pain of a family bereavement, the tragedy of your own addiction. But if you’ve already got a death in the family, how can you carry on? How can you hold yourself together? To the film’s credit, it pulls in the background drama, too. Those in the music industry have the troubles of the world. Powerless to change anything, so they push their way to success.

Alfred Hitchcock changed a lot of people’s lives. Hitchcock and James Whitmore, a great director and actor, are interviewed together after the fact, after both had passed away. Whitmore asks Hitch how he got his films into cinemas, and what the secret is. Hitchcock’s answer is simple: “Find the right person to take the ticket.” Clyde’s choice is never obviously explained, but it’s an ethical decision; it will make the difference between success and failure, and Huey, two years later, would follow the same path.

As well as the lovely Huey performing the gorgeous opening number, Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, you can walk around the set, watch colour photocopies of photographs, listen to Cliff Richard sing Even The Heavens Know, and watch that hole-in-the-wall ad for On the Road Again on the news crawl. It’s all just a little bit overdone, but it’s far less clunky than it would be if the film was about someone other than Clyde. It’s a journey of discovery, one that weaves the trials and tribulations of Clyde’s drug use into the fabric of pop music.

James is unlikely to ask for a tour of film history, but this is about the films he made. It doesn’t change the way that most of us remember on-screen couples meeting for the first time – James and Eileen – or James and Kathleen Turner, mother and daughter in The Graduate. But it’s a movie that continues to challenge our own preconceptions and beliefs – something a lot of viewers will enjoy after having seen other films about these two stars.

Clyde is released in cinemas now.

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