Coming to a music store near you: Santo Subito!, the first ever papal music DVD. Featuring the late John Paul II, it is to be launched in Britain by Universal — better known for Amy Winehouse and the Sugababes — on 19 November. By Christmas, if the prayers of the PR people are answered, it will be a worldwide number one hit.
Santo Subito! (‘sainthood immediately!’) is what crowds outside the Vatican traditionally chant when they want someone canonised without delay. Anyone who watched John Paul II’s funeral will remember the numerous banners in the crowds displaying the slogan.
The DVD is a 60-minute compilation of footage of the late Pope cut to music and it includes Vatican archive of his visits to Africa, Auschwitz, Brazil, Britain and the Middle East. What makes the DVD different from the pious offerings you find in the gift shops around the Vatican is that the footage is edited with material shot by Mimmo Verduci, known in Italy for his avant-garde pop promos and commercials. Verduci is a daring choice, but even more controversial is the fact that John Paul’s words are enhanced by a background soundtrack by British composer Simon Boswell.
Apart from his past rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, Boswell is an agnostic and a divorcee, now living in sin with the actress Lysette Anthony. When I ask Vincent Messina, the producer of the DVD, why he chose such an inappropriate heathen, he chuckles. ‘You British have such quaint ideas about how the Vatican operates. Simply, Simon is the best in the world. No one asks if he’s Catholic.’ Messina explains that Boswell’s agnosticism was partly an advantage. Had a Catholic composed the music, ‘We would have had an expected result — something too shy, too careful, too afraid. Simon is not reverential or influenced. That’s important.’
The DVD is divided into ten chapters that range from the Ten Commandments to the papal funeral itself. Throughout, John Paul is eloquent in several languages and his words are often more reminiscent of a United Nations directive than a message from God. ‘Forgiveness is the condition for reconciliation,’ he says over shots of him with Orthodox priests. In Brazil, we see images of shocking poverty cut with swooping helicopter shots of the iconic statue of Jesus that towers over Rio. All the while the Pope’s rhythmic voice soothes us, ‘God reaches all, especially where there is suffering and anguish, in hospitals, prisons, homeless zones, breadless, loveless.’ Boswell uses everything in his creative repertoire, from trip-hop to classical choral music, to weave a richly textured musical background for the Pope’s words and often succeeds in making even the most childlike sentiment resonate with spiritual authority. ‘Simon is a musical genius,’ says Messina. ‘If he had been born in America not Britain, he’d be the world’s number one composer.’
Messina and Boswell go back to 1981 when Messina was working for RCA, the biggest music conglomerate in Italy, subsequently bought by BMG and then Universal. Boswell was on tour with his rock band, Live Wire, and Messina persuaded Boswell to produce for him. Hits followed, including Via Tagliamento by Renato Zero, still Italy’s biggest-selling album. Messina then introduced Boswell to Dario Argento, famous for his horror films, which have influenced directors like David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Quentin Tarantino. It was Boswell’s flair for scoring horror that really convinced Messina of his brilliance.
‘I’ve gone from Hell to Heaven, if you like,’ laughs Boswell from his London studio. He admits that he knew virtually nothing about John Paul to begin with but was swayed by the power of his voice. ‘It often has a trancelike quality that begs to be set to music,’ he says. ‘Besides, I was touched by his humility and ability to speak to so many.’ He also enjoyed finding numerous similarities between John Paul’s philosophy and John Lennon’s: ‘They’re both basically on about world peace.’
When it comes to this project, John Lennon has a lot to answer for. ‘After Lennon died, the Beatles made “Free as a Bird” using Lennon’s voice,’ explains Messina. ‘That got me thinking — if the Beatles can do it, why not us? Every time the Pope speaks it’s an emotional sensation and the Beatles showed that we didn’t need to get the Pope into a studio to use his voice.’ So in 2003 Abba Pater was born, a CD that set some of John Paul’s sermons to music.
Originally, visuals were added to Abba Pater but the Vatican did not approve the DVD for release. ‘Let’s just say they didn’t like the association of some of the images with the message,’ Messina says evasively when I try to press him on what exactly they disapproved of. ‘So I decided to scrap that one and start afresh.’
Messina contacted Boswell and did a deal with Sony. Filming and composing began but two months later John Paul fell ill and died. When the DVD could not be ready six weeks after the Pope’s death Sony pulled out, believing that interest in John Paul II would be bound to fade after he died. Messina and Boswell took the idea to Warner Bros, Fox and Universal in the US. ‘Everyone turned us down,’ says Boswell. ‘People we met loved it but someone high up always said no.’
Refusing to be disheartened, Messina invested E400,000 in the DVD, a sum he describes as a ‘nice risk’, given there are 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide and if 1 per cent of them buy the DVD, they will have sold 11 million. Finally, persuaded by the logic of the economics, Universal picked it up and is now releasing the DVD globally.
For such a potential phenomenon, the packaging looks tawdry. Cheap paper inserts flutter from the plastic casing that shows a blue sketch of John Paul praying. ‘Deliberately accessible to all,’ Boswell justifies it. He laughs but the cheap packaging gives no indication of the calibre of the music within. For John Paul’s funeral sequence, Boswell produced an exquisite requiem, using the Schola Choir from the London Oratory School. We see the plain wooden coffin and hear John Paul intone: ‘It’s very simple. The synthesis of what I have said is contained in a no and a yes. No to egoism.’ The list continues and ends, ‘Yes to justice, love and peace. Yes! — your duty to build a better society.’ Boswell’s soaring music lifts this near-platitudinous message into the realms of the profound. It is undeniably moving.
No wonder Monsignor Slawomir Oder, head of the canonisation process, is so pleased with the DVD. I ask Messina what Pope Benedict himself thinks. ‘We don’t know exactly but he has a copy and we plan to meet him — perhaps when the DVD hits number one in time for Christmas,’ he says.
‘I always wanted to be bigger than Michael Jackson and now we could have the biggest number one ever,’ twinkles Boswell. ‘That would be a Christmas miracle, wouldn’t it?’ Of course, choosing Boswell was no miracle but a worldly, wily decision made with a shrewd eye on results and publicity. When challenged about Boswell at the Italian press launch, the Vatican representative Don Giulio Neroni happily replied, ‘Jesus loves a sinner.’ Ironically, a British sinner may provide the decisive shove in the JPII canonisation process.