Stream It Or Skip It?

Mixed by Erry, now on Netflix, is the story of the rise and fall of an Italian bootleg cassette-tape empire that became so enormous, sales rivaled those of the corporate big-dog record labels. This is a BOATS (Based On A True Story) movie set in a simpler time, the 1980s mostly, when hair was permed and music was trapped on teensy magnetic strips contained within little plastic cases with spinny-majigs in them that moved the strips across a head that amplified the music through electronic wires and into stereo speakers so it could be heard by our ears. (This is only an approximation of the science involved in this process; please forgive me for any inaccuracies.) Anyway, it’s a fairly enjoyable movie focusing on three brothers who got very rich via illegal means – but as these stories inevitably turn out, that status was only temporary.   

The Gist: It’s 1991, and Erry, real name Enrico Frattasio (Luigi D’Oriano) is greeted like a hero – in prison. His new “roommates” call him “maestro” and one gentleman in a tracksuit approaches him about an opportunity to bury a lot of cash under concrete so it may be somewhat easily fetched at a later date. How Erry got here requires a flashback to 1976, when young Erry and his brothers brewed tea to their father’s exacting specifications, then funneled it into empty whiskey bottles so Pop could sell it as the real alcoholic deal to unwitting customers. Soon enough, Erry would be a bootlegger of his own making, but he’s an artist at heart – a music fanatic who yearns to DJ and makes mixtapes that everyone loves loves loooovvvesssss. Which might prompt a debate about whether a scam artist is really an “artist,” or whether compiling and sequencing other people’s music is a true “art” or just a craft, but for the sake of the movie, Erry here is pure of heart for the most part, a wide-eyed type who just wants to do what he loves, namely, immerse himself in music.

The story truly gets rolling in 1985. Erry is a tad meek to be a club DJ like he desires, so there he is, pushing a broom at the local record and electronics shop in the Forcella neighborhood in Naples. His older brother Peppe (Giuseppe Arena) shakes down Erry for a mixtape so he can woo a girl with it and before you know it, she’s leading her pregnant belly down the aisle in her wedding gown. That’s proof in some pudding right there – the potency of an expertly curated mixtape in the mid-’80s. We also meet Erry’s younger brother Angelo (Emanuele Palumbo), a spirited chap who once nearly killed a man – to be fair, that man was curbstomping his brother – and did time in prison, which apparently opened him to the type of unsavory connections that are like peanut butter to the chocolate of the Frattasio brothers’ fake-whiskey-fraud upbringing. But hey, in this hardscrabble working-class urban setting, you do what you gotta do, so you can’t help but look at the Frattasios’ shady petty dealings and laugh.

All this time, Erry’s mixtapes were winning hearts, converting locals from New Wave to New Romantic and vice versa. One day, a lightbulb appears over Peppe’s head: What if they mass duplicate Erry’s tapes and sell them? And what if they mass duplicate the legitimate recordings of musical artists, recordings that aren’t distributed in their area, and sell those, too? Angelo takes them to the local Don who gives them a loan (uh oh?) so they can set up in the recently vacated electronics storefront and sell their wares, and it takes right the F off; cue a montage set to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump.” They pay back the loan (no uh oh!) and get another, significantly bigger one (uh oh?), and end up paying that one back too (no uh oh!). Business is booming. They’re legit, but not legit at all. But they are driving around in Lamborghinis now. And dealing with Moroccan mobsters after they poach the cigarette-smuggling workforce for the pirate record label. And sidestepping a gum-chomping cop who has it out for them. And also shaking hands with corporate cassette manufacturers who look the other way while offloading heaps of their wares to the bootlegger brothers. Of course, this can’t last forever. Nothing ever does, does it?

Photo: Netflix

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Mixed by Erry would pair nicely with Philip Seymour Hoffman-fronted music-related period BOATS comedy The Boat That Rocked (also known as Pirate Radio).

Performance Worth Watching: Character development for any cast member here is in short supply, but D’Oriano capably encompasses the heart of the movie, winning us over by playing Erry as a youthful-innocent type who gets in over his head, but also has no qualms about riding the wave of his success.  

Memorable Dialogue: Peppe’s wife inspires the Frattasio brothers by offhandedly half-comparing them to astronauts: “People have gone to the moon. There must be something, like a device, I don’t know, that makes tapes faster.” 

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: Mixed by Erry looks terrific and sounds great, rocking vintage visual style and a nostalgia-drenched pop soundtrack. Those of us of a certain vintage who fetishize the clunk and hiss of a tape being loaded into a deck and cranked to high volume (confession: I’m about a 7.6 on that physical-format scale) will drool at the shots of the Erry “laboratories,” which are stacked to the ceiling with lovely, swoonworthy cassette machines. I mean, just imagine the soothing meditative sound of all of them whirring at once as they dupe, I dunno, Dio’s Sacred Heart album. Did they love Dio in 1987 Naples? They should’ve – some folks at least. But this movie puts Run D.M.C. and the Eurythmics on the soundtrack to broaden its appeal and keep the tone accessible and upbeat, something it does quite well. It’s easy to consume, like a bag of Funyuns washed down with a cool, crisp Tab.

But as slick as the film can be, it’s also shallow, a broad and episodic outing that covers a lot of narrative ground but never really digs into what makes these characters tick. As children, the Frattasios survived in the gray areas of the law; as adults, they thrived there. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that. The brothers’ wives are set dressing, the cop trying to bust their ass is a cartoon character and Erry seems to be the only character whose conscience weighs more than a gnat’s wing. There isn’t much dramatic weight behind their mob connections or the threat of getting busted; a scene in which the brothers out of nowhere wield AK-47s to scare off Moroccan heavies is played for laughs – a scene that’s representative of the movie as a whole, which considers the Frattosios’ crimes a lark. 

But the film also keenly contextualizes their endeavor as a Robin Hood-esque operation that happened to enrich them at the same time it fulfilled a need for working-class citizens seeking the uplift of music when they likely didn’t have the means to acquire the real thing. Like true disciples of capitalism, three nobodies saw an underserved gap in the market and filled it, whupping the big corporations at their own game. When you frame it that way, such a story is more amusing than criminal. Mixed by Erry is pretty good at making its case: none of this should be taken too seriously.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Mixed by Erry is uptempo and funny – just enough to make up for some of its bigger flaws.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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