Musician and racing aficionado Chris Rea was disappointed with the original version of La Passione, a very personal Ferrari film project. Twenty years on he has remastered it on his own terms – and thrown in hitherto unseen footage from Wolfgang von Trips’ family archive
Writer Simon Taylor | Photographer Howard Simmons
Cars and music: two passions that frequently intertwine. Quite a few racing drivers and car designers are, one discovers on getting to know them better, lovers of music. Their different tastes in sound often echo their varying approaches to finding an extra tenth of a second, or creating their next race winner. In the same way, when musicians achieve enough material success to indulge themselves, their four-wheeled choice usually reflects their music.
Thus Giuseppe Campari, twice Mille Miglia winner and victor in the French and Italian Grands Prix for Alfa Romeo, was dedicated to opera and possessed a fine baritone. Before he died at Monza in 1933 he had sung professionally. Leonard Bernstein, conductor, composer and musical director of the New York Philharmonic, used to terrorise the streets of Manhattan with his flamboyant driving of his Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, and while working in London drove an Aston Martin DB6 Vantage Volante with equal vigour. Antony Hopkins, not the actor but the pianist, composer and conductor, was an early owner of the 12th factory Lightweight E-type. He used it in hillclimbs and sprints and also drove it on the road: in the 1960s it was a common sight parked outside the Royal College of Music.
In jazz, Billy Cotton was a fine campaigner in MG K3 and ERA, as well as the ex-Segrave V12 Sunbeam. Belgian single-seater driver Johnny Claes’ other job in the 1940s was leading his band The Clay Pigeons. British racer and accessory dealer Les Leston was at one stage Claes’ drummer, winning a Melody Maker promising newcomer award. Trombonist Chris Barber, still leading a renowned jazz band today after more than 60 years, was a keen racer and then entrant from the 1950s to the 1970s, usually with Lotuses.
In rock music the roll-call of car nuts is headed by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, racer, collector and personality in historic motor sport. Beatle George Harrison was a frequent face at Grands Prix and tested a Lotus 18 at Donington, and on his eighth solo album the track Faster is dedicated to Ronnie Peterson. Most of the cars enjoyed by idiosyncratic singer and songwriter Neil Young, of Crazy Horse fame, have been American classics; but the one he remembers with most fondness is his 1934 Freestone & Webb-bodied Derby Bentley. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, another of rock’s aristocracy, has a Maserati 300S among his collection, and races it in historic events. There are many more: you can add your own favourites to the list.
But Chris Rea takes things further. Renowned for his husky voice, his glorious bottleneck guitar technique and his creation of scores of haunting songs, he had his first big hit nearly 40 years ago. Since then he has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide, entirely made up of his own compositions, and he is still touring across Europe. He comes from Italian immigrant and Irish catholic stock, and grew up as one of seven children living in a cramped flat over the family coffee bar in Middlesbrough, where his father also made ice cream.
“My father, like a true Italian, told me that the Ferrari was the best car in the world. It was red, and it had 12 cylinders – when the Ford 8s and Morris Minors on the streets of Middlesbrough had four, and even our old Humber Imperial hearse, which was the only thing big enough to take the whole family, had just six. One fateful day in 1961, when I was 10, I nicked the current copy of Motor Sport from our dentist’s waiting room. In it were two pictures of Wolfgang von Trips, one driving the Ferrari shark-nose F1 car, the other his Targa Florio-winning 246SP.”
From then on Chris, with no other access to car magazines or car people, became obsessed with motor racing, with Ferrari, and in particular with Wolfgang von Trips. Through the marginal TV coverage on his family’s little black-and-white set, he followed his hero’s progress towards the 1961 world championship title. But British television didn’t cover that year’s Italian Grand Prix, and when von Trips was killed in the dreadful second-lap accident his family kept the news from the little boy, knowing that otherwise they would not be able to get him to school the next day. On Monday afternoon, when he did finally learn what had happened, he was heartbroken.
On leaving school he worked in the coffee bar and the little ice-cream factory, and he didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 22. “If you came from a working-class background in a place like Middlesbrough, rock music wasn’t a chosen thing, it was the only thing: the only avenue of creativity open to you.” Completely self-taught on guitar and piano, he began writing songs, and joined a local band. His first single was released two years later, and two years after that came his first album. One of its tracks, Fool if You Think it’s Over, was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
But his fascination for motor racing, and the memories of von Trips, never left him.
As his career took off, and when his punishing schedule allowed, he was able to realise some of his youthful fantasies. He did so humbly enough, at first anyway, racing a pushrod Caterham 7. He graduated through a Lotus 23B and a Lola Mk1 to an Elan 26R and then an Intermarque Ferrari 308, winning a round at Donington. He also drove a Porsche 911 Supercup car in the 1993 Monaco Grand Prix support race.
More recently he has campaigned a very original Climax-powered Lotus Six, and his latest racing car – displaying typical Rea humour – is a genuine ex-police Morris Minor panda car, which has been race-prepared to bring a bit of variety to historic saloon grids.
His road cars include a Porsche turbo, a 1965 Fiat 500 which he adores and uses for local journeys – “I’ve had the engine modified to produce an extra 6bhp, but it has terrible understeer in the wet” – and a Caterham with 300bhp of Duratec engine to move 540 kilos, which is unbeatable on the road. He is without a Ferrari at the moment, having sold his F12:
“I loved it, but it was unreliable. The on-board computer packed up three times.”
You know he is a genuine enthusiast, rather than just a rich man buying fashionable toys, because his knowledge of racing, and of racing people, is prodigious. He seems to be friends with everybody at all levels of the sport, present and past: drivers, team bosses, designers, mechanics, authors and journalists. Motor racing is indeed his passion.
He has more than once used his love of racing as inspiration for his music, most notably in his tribute to Ayrton Senna, Saudade. Then in the 1990s his childhood memories found an outlet in an 84-minute sequence of connected songs about a small boy’s obsession with Ferrari and von Trips, which he called, appropriately enough, La Passione. He wove it into a script for an elaborate music video, using accurate replicas he commissioned of the Ferrari 156 shark-nose and the 246SP.
“We were well down the road with this, and then the shit hit the fan. Some senior executives at Warner Brothers, which was my recording company at the time and of course made movies too, decided to expand what I was doing into a complete film, with a linear story, for cinema release. I knew this was wrong, but effectively the whole project was taken off me. It went ahead with a director, full production team, professional actors and an elaborate story wrapped around my music. I hated how it turned out.” La Passione went on general release in 1996 and was panned by the critics, and its cinema exposure was short-lived.
Almost 20 years passed before Chris, “after a lot of shadow boxing”, was able to get the rights back – and during that interval something else happened. “I was on tour in Germany, and on a rest day between gigs I happened to be driving along a road west of Cologne when I saw a sign for the Wolfgang von Trips Museum. I found myself outside a castle. I went in, and lost myself in a treasure trove of his personal memorabilia, until there were tears running down my cheeks.
“I discovered that von Trips, in the last years of his life, had an 8mm film camera which he took with him everywhere. All that film still existed, masses of it, and had never been seen outside the family. They were very kind to me, and let me have access to it all. It showed my boyhood hero and his dream life – an aristocrat, living in a castle, surrounded by beautiful girls, and leading the Ferrari Grand Prix team.”
And now La Passione has reappeared, in an extraordinary package: two DVDs and two CDs, contained in a big-format hardback book. The CDs have the music from the film, remastered, and there are some new compositions, like Dino and Barn Find, which expand the theme of the album. The first DVD has the music with what is, for me, wonderful footage, some from the original film and some newly shot. It depicts a young boy using his imagination to build a motor racing fantasy. I defy anyone who played with toy racing cars as a kid, and dreamed about their full-size equivalents, not to identify with it completely.
It also includes interview material with Chris explaining what lay behind some of the tracks and why he put them together as he did. It’s emotional, it’s romanticised, some may say it’s self-indulgent, and purists may have objections: the Le Mans sequence, for example, deliberately includes some footage from Sebring, Kristianstad and Silverstone. But everything you see on the screen amplifies and enhances the music.
There’s a glorious impressionistic sequence showing the birth of a Ferrari GTO, from the first steel being poured to the final polish: most of the soundtrack with this is percussion only. Barn Find depicts everyone’s dream, finding a decaying GTO abandoned in a shed, which climaxes with some wonderful footage on the Montlhéry banking in the rain. Mixed in with this are unposed, informal clips of 1950s motor racing people, and also carefully researched stills – Dino, for example, includes rare pictures of Enzo Ferrari with his son. Vintage biplanes have a role too, complete with wing-walker.
As for the music, that of course will be a matter of personal taste. If you’re expecting some Rea hard rock you’ll be disappointed. Most of this is orchestral, with Chris playing piano as well as guitar: into the iconic Studio Two at Abbey Road, where it was all recorded, he crammed a classical orchestra. The whole sequence is lush, poignant, romantic, grand. But, as he says, “In music there are no acceleration figures or lap times. There’s no absolute measure whether it’s good or not: when you listen, it either works for you or it doesn’t.” And with La Passione you can’t judge the music on its own: you have to judge the music and the visuals together.
The second DVD is entirely made up of von Trips’ personal home movies, shot by him and of him by his friends, and now being seen publicly for the first time. In some he was quite ambitious, using a cockpit-mounted camera: for example, as he tests an F2 Porsche at Monza, the wheel movement shows dramatically how bumpy the banking was. Edited with meticulous care by Chris’ partner in this project, Scott McBurney, the von Trips films have a naive and moving life all of their own. The two CDs have all the music again, ideal for listening in the car. The book, 76 pages of it, is full of period photos, stills from the film, and writings and paintings by Chris, all to complement the DVDs and CDs.
Chris admits that industry executives don’t think this is what the general music market is after. But he has the route – his own Jazzee Blue label – to ensure that his labour of love does see the light of day. It’s something he really wanted to do after the disappointment of the 1996 movie and, whatever the public as a whole may think, he hopes that his friends in the car world will enjoy it. This one certainly does.
And it all started with a copy of Motor Sport in a dentist’s waiting room in Middlesbrough, 55 years ago.