The Don Diego Trio Sends Greetings From Austin
Vittorio Bongiorno follows a rockabilly band from Italy to Texas
By Richard Whittaker,
4:00PM, Thu. Apr. 11, 2019
There are few more American musical genres than rockabilly, the pulsing fusion of rock and roll, bluegrass and, of course, Texas swing. Yet its global reach is how filmmaker Vittorio Bongiorno travelled an Italian band from Sicily to the Ameripolitan Festival in Austin – and why he's back here tonight with the Don Diego Trio.
A director, novelist and musician in his own right, Bongiorno's documentary Greetings From Austin follows the trio (which has been known to swell to a quartet, quintet, and even more as the mood and the music requires) on their first American trip. Yet, like his his 2010 documentary, Buia Era la Notte (Dark Was the Night), about artist Giovanni Manfredini, it's not just about the joys of creativity.
Greetings, which screens at the Alamo Drafthouse Mueller tonight, follows the contradictory experiences of Don Diego, aka Diego Geraci: A Sicilian musician who fell in love with rockabilly, and became so filled with the rhythm that his Don Diego Trio made it to the list of five finalists at the 2017 Ameripolitan Festival awards at the Paramount in Austin. When the band made it to a place they regarded as holy ground, they were faced with the dilemmas of being an Italian band making American music, and questioning whether they would really be accepted.Even though American music has Southern culture has been a recurrent theme in his work, Bongiorno said that before this film, “I have to admit I knew few things about Texas, about dance, the importance of dancing, but I discovered it while I was shooting. It was amazing to me, like watching in slow motion the blooming of a beautiful rose. It was the biggest gift to my live, falling in love with this culture, this way to life, with this amazing Texan landscape.”
Austin Chronicle: How did you first meet Don Diego, and what was the inspiration behind making this film about the trio?
Vittorio Bongiorno: Don Diego reached me on Facebook after reading my fourth novel, The Duke in Sicily (a fictional story about the real Duke Ellington’s concert in Palermo, my birthplace, in 1970). We’re both Sicilian, we have almost the same jazz music background from our fathers, and we started to chat. When he told me that he’d leave for Austin for the Ameripolitan Awards, nominated as Best Rockabilly Band in 2017, I immediately fell in love madly with the idea: an Italian band who try to conquer the Wild West.
As a storyteller, before being a director, this was the real challenge: telling this real story of the clash of two very different cultures. I’m always looking for stories with a strong challenge, conflicts. The Ameripolitan Awards is built on saving the roots of the country music, and I wanted to understand how it is possible to let a Sicilian band to come in, to drink at that source and eventually mix it with his own roots.
AC: With this film, and Dark was the Night, you seem to be fascinated by the creative process of other artists, but also on the emotional cost of being an artist. Is that a theme you deliberately seek out in your films, or is it just what develops?
VB: There’s no art without suffering. There’s no art, any kind of art, without a strong need, a kinda of obsession. The “emotional cost of being an artist”, against society, family, audience, market, is one of my main topics. You can easily find it in the main character of The Duke in Sicily, in the short story “I’m Not Like You,” in Don Diego's movie, in Dark was the Night. My next project it’ll be a novel about the emotional cost of being Kafka.
VB: I choose that trip to America because it was the chance to talk also about what is “real” and what is “fake”, the original and the copy. Being a rockabilly band in Italy it’s easy. Facing the original myth in America, fighting against other rockabilly bands in America is really hard, is challenging. Being accepted here, on American soil, as a part of the family, is an odyssey: hard work, self-sacrifice, perseverance. I use to say this movie is not about music, it’s about life.
Plus, I’m a big fan of “on the road” movies, the Lone Star cowboy Mythology, Jim Jarmusch style: doing this movie was a challenge even to me. Am I tough enough to be a director, just with only one camera operator with me, traveling in America for 11 days, shooting for 20hours per day, and survive? It’s seems yes ...
AC: Some of the scenes - like the conversation in the car, or the breakfast - seem like vignettes, as if the band is almost actors playing themselves as characters. It's a striking effect, sometimes almost dreamlike, that balances with the raw life performance footage. How did you approach making those more intimate scenes?
VB: Dreamlike, yes, that was my original idea of the movie, just before to start to shoot. I knew it was a documentary but I wanted to shoot it in a “dreamy” way. I still call it “movie” and not “documentary” because I didn’t want to use the classic style of interview-live-interview-live song. I wanted to offer to the audience someting more deep. I also used the music I played for that “vignettes” (breakfast, travels, car) just to build a deeper level of narration. A dream. The interesting thing is I never forced them to do something strange or different from their real act: I only built a deeper level. There’s the rockabilly, the real life, and the dreams, the journeys, their reflections about their life. I hope I made it through.
KOOP presents Greetings from Austin, Thursday, April 11, 7pm, Alamo Mueller. There will be a live Q&A followed by a live performance at Barrel O' Fun by the Don Diego Trio. Tickets and info at drafthouse.com.