He is the golden-voiced Italian tenor who overcame blindness and other extreme obstacles to find success on the world stage, selling more than 80 million albums. Now Andrea Bocelli, 58, has inspired one of Britain’s leading film directors to tell his extraordinary story on the big screen. The singer has asked only that his blindness not be portrayed as a disability.
The Music of Silence is being shot by Michael Radford, whose previous films include the critically acclaimed Il Postino – for which he received an Oscar nomination – and a version of The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino.
This new film, based on Bocelli’s autobiographical novel of the same name, explores the relationship between blindness and hearing, as well as other senses heightened by the loss of sight. Bocelli went blind as a child, struggled to teach himself to read music in Braille, and competed in talent shows until his potential was recognised by Luciano Pavarotti, who declared that “there is no finer voice than Bocelli”.
Having made ends meet as a bar singer, Bocelli went on to perform to sold-out audiences all over the world, sang to presidents and popes, and was awarded a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.
He is portrayed in the film by Toby Sebastian, the British actor known for Game of Thrones, who speaks with an Italian accent and mimes to tracks of Bocelli’s voice that are synchronised in a complex technical process.
Radford told the Observer that Bocelli asked that Sebastian did not attempt to portray a blind person “because I spend most of my life trying to pretend that I can actually see”. He said that Bocelli tries to avoid embarrassing people, believing that “nobody wants to see me reaching for a chair like a desperate man with my arms stretched out and feeling about”.
The director was initially wary of making a film about a living person, but he said he found Bocelli’s story so inspirational. “He was born with glaucoma in one eye. He was in hospital most of his early childhood until they managed to save about 10% of the sight in one eye. He was categorised as blind, but with a limited amount of sight,” he said. “Then, when he was 12, he was playing football in his blind school and somebody kicked a ball that hit his other eye and blinded him.”
In working on the script with Bocelli, Radford got to know him and began to understand exactly why the singer “doesn’t consider himself to be handicapped in any way”. Radford explained: “This is about a guy who’s determined – he’s a forceful character. He’s also physically extremely courageous. He rides horses and does all sorts of things that you wouldn’t imagine that someone who is blind would do with the degree of skill that he achieves.
“You see him walking round the place. Last time I went to see him, he greeted me on an Andalucían stallion which was walking only on its hind legs and he was controlling it. Amazing. Then he galloped into the distance.”
He added: “There are all these tricks that he uses. He’ll kick a chair with his foot, to figure out where it is. And of course his other senses are absolutely developed. He can smell, touch, feel, above all he can hear. Literally by clicking his fingers he can tell you how far away a wall is.”
Bocelli has just released a special 20th anniversary edition of his hit album, Romanza, which includes two new versions of the song that catapulted him to stardom, Time To Say Goodbye (Con Te Partirò), one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. It has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. Now he has made new recordings to be used in The Music of Silence.
He also has a cameo role in the film. Radford said: “The scene kicks off with him sitting at a typewriter, writing the story of the film, and he’s in the theatre … at the end, he goes through the theatre … and then steps out in front of a huge audience and starts to sing.”
The film takes the story up to the point where Bocelli was “desperate for some sort of success”, Radford added. An international cast includes Antonio Banderas, whose films include Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Desperado, who plays the Maestro. The script is a collaboration with both Bocelli and Anna Pavignano, Radford’s collaborator on Il Postino.
The film is being made in English. “This was something I was very wary of to begin with, because my area of activity is authenticity,” said Radford. “But I succumbed to that pressure.
“We have Italian actors speaking English with an Italian accent. That seems to work, strangely. Toby [Sebastian] speaks English with an Italian accent. We have dialogue and dialect coaches. We have absolutely everybody coaching everybody. It’s very complicated. We have music experts, blind experts, every type of expert. It’s quite extraordinary.”
Radford spoke to the Observer on the set at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where the shoot continues throughout this month. He said that while Bocelli might not be able to see the final movie, he can certainly “feel it, sense it and hear it”.