At the beginning of Explota Explota, a new Spanish-Italian jukebox musical comedy set at the tail end of the Franco dictatorship in 1970s Spain, airport employee Maria is making a delivery at a TV studio when she catches the attention of Chimo, the director of a variety show. When she tells him she’s not a dancer, he replies: “No dancer with blood flowing in their veins can resist this rhythm.”
He plays her Bailo Bailo, a hit by Italian pop star Raffaella Carrà, who, on top of becoming one of the best known personalities in her native Italy, ended up a sensation in the 20th-century Spanish-speaking world. Where Sweden had Abba, Italy had Carrà, who sold millions of records across Europe. Sure enough, Maria can’t resist Bailo Bailo, and Chimo hires her.
Explota Explota – titled My Heart Goes Boom! in English, directed by Nacho Álvarez, and currently touring the film festival circuit – pays homage to Carrà’s hits but isn’t a biopic: her songs are performed during the fictional variety show Las Noches de Rosa, and used during the narration as the characters navigate their lives. The film reflects the shifting views on relationships, sexuality and entertainment in a Catholic country: one of the main battlegrounds is how high the hemlines of the showgirls’ skirts can go, and how plunging the necklines can be before a fake flower must be plastered on them for the sake of modesty.
From the 1950s onwards, Carrà was a triple treat who could sing, dance and act equally well, and she had an unrivalled influence in Italian music and pop culture (English was not her first performing language, making her more of a cult figure in the UK). Technically speaking, Italy had far more vocally accomplished singers, who combined range with dramatic flair: Mina, a virtuoso-like mezzo-soprano; Milva, known as Milva “the Red” because of her political leanings and fiery mane, celebrated for interpretations of Brecht and Weill; Patty Pravo, an androgynous alto; and Giuni Russo, who sublimated operatic technique into pop, and had a five-octave range. Carrà outpaced them all.
When, in 1968, youth culture became more politicised and her peers gathered in protest, Carrà travelled to America and saw the musical Hair each night for a month. She returned home with the conviction that Italian entertainment needed a jolt of energy. “She was the first pop icon, but housewives always liked her. She revolutionised TV entertainment,” wrote journalist Anna Maria Scalise in 2008. Carrà herself said in 1974: “I do not get my inspiration from anyone: I speak to children, to sports-watching dads, to wives, so to TV-watching Italian families.”
Her stomping ground was the Italian variety show, which featured Broadway-inspired singing and dancing sequences. She first rose to fame during the 1970 edition of the variety show Canzonissima, where she was a co-host: the show plugged her original songs directly into its dance and music numbers. She sang and danced the opening credits, the fanfare-like Ma Che Musica Maestro, wearing a two-piece set complete with a crop top – the first time that someone dared expose their midriff on national TV. The Vatican and the conservative management of RAI, the national Italian TV station where Canzonissima was broadcast, were scandalised. “The queen of so-so” was how TV host Maurizio Costanzo panned her.
Yet she was rehired the following year, when, with the dancer Enzo Paolo Turchi, she performed the jazz-like song Tuca Tuca: one performer touches the other on different body parts as the song progresses. They had to shoot it half-facing the camera to show Italian families watching that they were not fondling or groping each other. The song is notable for its focus on female agency. “Ti voglio”, she sings – I want you – and then “L’ho inventato io”: I invented this dance.
The general public was happy to have choreography that did not require much proficiency, but censors axed the routine after the third time they performed it. Italian movie star Alberto Sordi saved the day, demanding that, upon his appearance on Canzonissima, they reinstate the dance, cementing its mainstream success. Still, the press still pegged Carrà as a one-hit wonder, equating her to champagne gone flat.
Carrà wouldn’t stop fizzing, however. She wore proto-glam jumpsuits with cut-outs, capes, rhinestones, feathers, and cinched waists (recently the subject of a museum exhibition) topped with a blond bob that makes Anna Wintour’s look drab, but what set her apart from other triple treats was a combination of sex appeal and approachability. She taught women that having agency in the bedroom was not scandalous, that it’s OK to fall for a gay man, and that not all relationships are exactly healthy. “I think Raffaella Carrà has done more to liberate women than many feminists,” said artist Francesco Vezzoli, the curator of TV 70, an exhibition of 1970s Italian television for Fondazione Prada in 2017.
In 1976, she sang her major international hit A Far l’Amore Comincia Tu (be the one initiating sex), a call to action for women to make their lovers understand what they want in bed. In the English version, Carrà’s only entry on the UK singles chart, at No 9, she urges women to “Do it, do it again.” In Spanish, the lyric translates as “in love, initiating is everything”, but in Germany the message was warped: schlager singer Tony Holiday transformed the original raunchy lyrics into a tame invitation to dance. You may be familiar with Carrà’s version: it’s in a Doctor Who episode, and Jep Gambardella, the central character in Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, dances to a frenetic remix of it at his birthday party.
Curiously, A Far L’Amore Comincia Tu was released alongside Forte Forte, a ballad with the opposite message: she relishes being submissive in a relationship full of rough sex. Carrà acknowledges that pleasure can come from taking the lead, and from being led.
Also in 1976, she hit big in Spain. Franco had just died and she hosted La Hora de Raffaella, singing and dancing the way she did in Italy. “I was lucky, my show aired right after high-profile football matches, like Real Madrid-Barcelona, hence my success,” she told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2018, too modestly: her impact on Spanish pop culture was so big that, in 2018, the king of Spain made her a dame, “al orden del mérito civil”, for being “an icon of freedom”.
Her return to Italy in 1978 came with a heap of new artistic possibilities: colour TV had finally made it into Italian households, and she was made the host of variety show Ma Che Sera (Oh What a Night). The opening-credit song Tanti Auguri (Best Wishes) became an anthem to sex and sexuality. She sang “ma girando questa terra io mi sono convinta che non c’è odio non c’è guerra quando a letto l’amore c’è”, which translates as “by travelling this world, I became convinced that there’s no war nor hatred when things are hot in the bedroom”. Another line claimed it was great to have sex anywhere south of Trieste.
“Can you imagine a blond woman singing this song out loud at 8:30pm on Italian television with 30 million people watching?”, Vezzoli has said. “It’s such an innovative, liberatory act! Imagine all those women on the outskirts of Rome or in the Brescia province who thought that making love was an act they could only perform with their husbands in a very unhappy way.”
Another of her Ma Che Sera provocations consisted of her wearing a sexy nun outfit while perched on top of an apple during a mashup of some of the Beatles’s greatest hits, while naked male dancers cavorted below her: the whole sequence is a trippy masterpiece of early special effects. She also debuted her disco single Luca on the show, in which she talked about feeling down after falling for a “golden-haired guy” who, however, cheated on her with a blond guy, and that’s the last she ever saw of him. “I only dated gay guys: they would not try to grope you at the cinema,” she told Corriere della Sera in 2017, reminiscing about her teen years.
Talking about homosexuality so matter-of-factly and lightly was unheard of in Catholic, repressed and pearl-clutching Italy, and it’s not surprising to see how Carrà became an international gay icon, to the point that she was given the World Pride 2017 award in Madrid.
Twelve days after Ma Cha Sera started airing, though, on 16 March 1978, leftwing terrorists kidnapped Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, and eventually killed him. Carrà tried to have the show suspended, but, since 30 million people were tuning in each Saturday, her request was not met. She eventually left Italy in 1979. “I was so ashamed I did not return for a long time,” she said in 1999.
She became a pop star and actor in South America, but came back to Europe, and by the 1980s had eased into her role as a chatshow host, which she remains at the age of 77. “More applauded than [president] Pertini, more expensive than [football player] Michel Platini, more miraculous than [modern saint] Padre Pio,” was how the weekly L’Espresso described her in 1984.
Most of her sex-positive pop anthems are a product of 70s Italian TV, but they’re not relics from the past: Italians still know the lyrics by heart, and belt them out as soon as the occasion arises (Tanti Auguri was the alarm sound on my tacky mid-noughties Motorola Razr). Her zenith happened before Donna Summer’s hedonistic I Feel Love and Cher’s sex-positive disco anthem Take Me Home, almost a decade before Cyndi Lauper’s masturbation anthem She Bop, and 15 years before Madonna’s Erotica. The Spice Girls’ “Tell me what you want, what you really really want” was reminiscent of Carrà urging countless southern European women to be the ones initiating sex.
Today, amid sexually explicit songs like WAP or Side to Side, urging the enjoyment of sex does sound fairly straightforward. But she was a trailblazer who helped people live more fulfilling lives, using rhythms no one with blood in their veins can resist.
• Explota Explota screens at Tallinn Black Nights film festival (showing from 13 to 29 November), Almería international film festival (showing from 14 to 21 November), and Torino film festival (showing from 24 to 28 November).
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