In one of the emotionally toughest moments it says: “What’s the song, you need an instrument, the voice is always just an accessory.” It’s the sentence of a father to his son. The father: Eugen Cicero, the world-famous virtuoso pianist who performed with artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey and Hildegard Knef. The son: Roger Cicero, later studied jazz singer, successful pop star and swing musician.
Eugen died of a cerebral infarction in 1997 at the age of only 57, as did his son Roger six years ago at the age of only 45. Hamburg director Kai Wessel has made a documentary about the two musicians and the difficult father-son relationship. On March 24th, the anniversary of Roger Cicero’s death, “Cicero – two lives, one stage” will be released in cinemas.
“I grew up with Eugene Cicero as a kid in the 1960s. He appeared in many of the big Saturday evening shows, the media highlights of the 1970s,” says Wessel in an interview. He then became aware of his son Roger through his first album “Männersachen” in 2006, and he got to know him personally during the shooting of his Hildegard Knef biopic “Hilde” with Heike Makatsch. In it, Roger Cicero played a small role as a musician, and Wessel had two or three days of shooting with him. “He was very candid, clear, a fun-loving, open person and without any airs and graces,” recalls the director.
Cicero was admired and smiled at
It is precisely this picture of the musician that Wessel draws together with co-author and producer Katharina Rinderle and Tina Freitag (co-director and editor) – a serious and thoughtful man who is nevertheless approachable and friendly towards people.
And Wessel manages to do something amazing: Roger Cicero, admired by numerous people, ridiculed by at least as many as just any German pop-jazzer and one of various unsuccessful German Eurovision Contest participants, becomes a personality in the film with charisma and musical virtuosity that might be new to some in this form.
The director (“The Escape”, “Tatort”) chose an interesting narrative style for this. “We didn’t want to leaf through the stories of Eugen and Roger chronologically from A to B. Such portraits and biographies already exist,” says Wessel. Rather, he and his team wanted to understand the two people, so they went on a global search for companions, especially Roger Cicero. You let them speak: his band members, a Swiss hardcore fan, the Hamburg musicians Johannes Oerding, Till Brönner and Joja Wendt, his managers and the people from Universal, the record label that made a significant contribution to Roger Cicero becoming a well-known brand .
It all started in “Angie’s Nightclub”
They had become aware of Cicero’s appearances in “Angie’s”, the nightclub on the Reeperbahn. When the record label approached him, Roger Cicero took his time with his answer. According to the statements, he didn’t really want to be rich and famous at the time. The film, like so many other things, tells this rather casually. The pictures, interviews and stories of companions speak for themselves. “Had we chosen a narration voice, we would have interfered in those two lives. But we didn’t want that,” explains Wessel of his approach.
Musician colleagues openly report that Cicero’s involvement with Universal was not without controversy. It was managers who gave him a macho image with very successful songs like “Take off your shoes” and from then on made him appear in a suit and hat. “But Roger wasn’t like that, it was more of a caricature of himself,” say some of his friends. Wessel himself puts it this way: “Of course, if you’re honest, Roger Cicero and his Big Band were a conceptual group, but that doesn’t diminish his incredible talent.”
However, Cicero could not be controlled completely remotely. He tried things out when he thought they were right, made swing music with German lyrics when nobody believed in it, took chances and never swerved. After three successful albums with humorous to ironic lyrics, he devoted himself to jazz again in the mid-2010s without a big band but in a quartet, swapping his hat for his beanie.
“The whole wave of success was a gift for Roger because it gave him the chance to do what he wanted,” believes director Wessel. Naturally, it was also a burden. This is evidenced by an interim burnout, after which he changed his lifestyle: alcohol and other drugs were replaced by tea and yoga.
Strong influence from the father
Wessel focuses solely on the father-son narrative, on the two of them as people and as musicians. The life of Eugen, born in Romania in 1940, living in Berlin for many years and then moving to Switzerland, takes up a much smaller part, and yet the film repeatedly draws parallels between the two lives and shows how much Eugen cares for his son has shaped. There are a few recordings of father and son performances together, Roger as a small boy, as a long-haired youth with a downy beard.
There are no private recordings, and hardly anything is known about the wife and mother. Eugen left the family early and had another daughter in Switzerland with a new wife. Eugen and Roger Cicero did not live an everyday life together. Eugen was a weekend father, a role that the son later never wanted to take on and yet got: His relationship with his son’s mother also broke up, and Roger Cicero also made a song about it.
The lives of father and son overlap in many facets, in the joy of life, the pursuit of perfection, the love of music. And so Wessel tells a story about two soul mates. Perhaps with a little pathos, but with at least as much sincere love and admiration, Roger Cicero wrote his father’s farewell song “I would have liked to say bye”. “Made one last song with you. A handful of jazz on the piano. I would have liked to hug you. ‘Take one last piece of advice from you. One last ‘Take care, my son’, it says.
And if you watch Roger Cicero in the film in the dim blue light at the piano and hear how he intones this song, then the viewer can almost physically feel their common fate.