We examine the body of work from Toronto's most prolific filmmaker.
By Will Sloan
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
-Henry Hill, Goodfellas
Even if you don’t think you want to be a gangster, there’s a certain appeal about being a gangster in a movie. Maybe you don’t want to be the Henry Hill who buries people in upstate New York, and maybe you don’t want to be the coke-crazed Henry Hill who gets arrested by the FBI. But on some level you probably want to be the Henry Hill who jumps the line outside the Copacabana, cuts through the kitchen, and gets seated at a front-row table. Maybe you’d like a little of that unearned swagger. More than any other Canadian filmmaker, Frank D’Angelo knows about this feeling.
Who is Frank D’Angelo? According to his self-written IMDB biography, he is “the embodiment of a true renaissance man, perpetually engaged in a motion-juggling multitude of business, personal and entertainment commitments— fulfilling all with his customary joy, aplomb and enthusiasm.” In layman’s terms, he is Canada’s most visible beverage tycoon, founder of D’Angelo Brands and creator of its most famous products, the Cheetah Power Surge energy drink and the defunct Steelback beers. He is also a local restaurateur, with the Forget About It! Supper Club on King Street and Mamma D’s in Mississauga.
More importantly, at age 56, he is a late-blooming entertainment mogul, having used his name and business connections to launch a career as a showbiz multi-hyphenate. Check iTunes and you’ll find his rock/soul/R&B discography. Tune into CHCH and you’ll see his Friday night talk show, The Being Frank Show (and keep your eyes peeled for La Trattoria, his mooted sitcom with Doris Roberts and Tony Rosato). Log onto his Next Sports Star web show and hear him expound on athletic issues (plus plenty of topics that have nothing to do with sports). Check your favourite On Demand provider and stream his first two feature films, the aggressively macho crime sagas Real Gangsters!™ and The Big Fat Stone.
Or better yet, drop by the Scotiabank Theatre today for the theatrical release of No Depo$it, fresh off its Canadian premiere at the Italian Contemporary Film Festival. It’s D’Angelo’s third movie as writer, director and star since 2013, and as a D’Angelo obsessive, this journalist urges you to attend. His latest film, the story of a man who turns to a life of crime after losing his money in the stock market, contains much of the hilarious macho swagger of D’Angelo’s earlier work with a whole new level of sociopolitical ambition.
But in Frank D’Angelo’s world, there’s so much more.
Where else will you see such D’Angelo regulars as Rosato, Roberts, Margot Kidder, Art Hindle, Robert Loggia, and Michael Paré share the screen with Daniel Baldwin, Peter Coyote, Michael Madsen, Eric Roberts, Paul Sorvino, Diane Salinger, and Dominique Swain? Where else will you see a film with an all-Frank D’Angelo soundtrack, including from-the-diaphragm R&B covers of “Hallelujah”? Where else will you see “New York City” offices littered with Don Cherry posters and D’Angelo Brand products? Where else will you be able to enjoy so much Frank D’Angelo, up on the silver screen in all his overwhelming Frankness?
There’s no nice way to say this, but we’ll try to put it as delicately as possible: Frank D’Angelo is an odd fellow to look at. He has a huge, pear-shaped head, and his thinning, jet-black hair is coiffed into one of the more peculiar combovers in cinematic history. Real Gangsters!™, his debut as a leading man, came when he was 54, and he looked his age. But from his first scene on camera—shirt-unbuttoned, hairless dadbod resplendent—he has been the Marlene Dietrich to his own Josef von Sternberg.
D’Angelo, who did not respond to Torontoist‘s requests for an interview, was late to the movie business. But his career had already endured a rise, fall, and semi-re-rise—all chronicled in his 2011 autobiography, “Being Frank: The Inspiring Story of Frank D’Angelo”*. Born to Sicilian immigrants and raised in a working-class neighbourhood in north Toronto, as a boy D’Angelo developed a knack for entrepreneurialism by selling newspapers door-to-door. As a teenager, he caught the show business bug, and pushed education aside to tour with his band. Things might have turned out differently: while on the road in Edmonton, D’Angelo claims to have had a chance meeting with two “heavy-hitting record producers from the City of Angels” in the market for (in their words) “a good-looking white kid with a big black voice.” The bigwigs were ready to sign D’Angelo to a contract on the spot, on the condition that he leave his band-mates behind in Canada. “Perhaps I’m just loyal to a fault,” writes D’Angelo, “but I just couldn’t ditch the band, not after everything we had gone through.” This is the only kind statement D’Angelo has for his former colleagues. Among his complaints: “I happened to be the one guy in the band with a conscience,” and, “Looking back, I think my fatal flaw was assuming everyone would bring the same commitment and drive to the band that I brought,” and, “Truth be told, I soon came to hate every minute of being in a band.”
After the band collapsed, he kicked around the GTA for a while, selling cars and working at his father’s Italian food distribution business. In 1987, he mortgaged his house to launch D’Angelo Apple Juice, and, after landing free airtime on the OMNI network, hit upon the career-defining idea of starring—and singing—in his own TV commercials. These commercials not only made D’Angelo a minor celebrity in the GTA, but also caught the attention of Loblaws president Dave Stewart, who offered D’Angelo shelf space in his stores.
D’Angelo would continue to personify his brands on TV commercials, starring in ads for his most ambitious project, Steelback Brewery, that aired in expensive Hockey Night in Canada slots (he even fronted an official company band, Steelback 2-4). His greatest triumph as a beer baron came in 2007, when Steelback was the official sponsor of that year’s Toronto Indy race (renamed “the 2007 Steelback Grand Prix of Toronto”); at this point, “The future looked so bright for Steelback that I felt like wearing shades,” writes D’Angelo.
But the weather turned stormy a few months later when Steelback went into receivership, owing more than $120 million in debt to more than 400 creditors, a list that included the Toronto Argonauts, the City of Toronto, the CIBC Run for the Cure, and a five-pin bowling alley in Listowel, Ontario. By D’Angelo’s reckoning, the only way to make a dent in the crowded liquor marketplace was to spend as much as $15 million per year on marketing—including $5.4 million in summer 2007—despite earning less than $3 million in annual revenue. “It was akin to David going up against a squadron of Goliaths, with no slingshot in sight,” he writes.
But Frank retained a foot in the beverage market with Cheetah Power Surge, his still-active energy drink. The product became instantly notorious when D’Angelo hired Ben Johnson to star in a 2006 commercial that aired during Hockey Night in Canada. Appearing alongside the scandal-plagued Olympic track star, D’Angelo asked, “Ben, when you run, do you cheetah?” “Absolutely!” replied Johnson, raising a tallboy of the beverage. “I Cheetah all the time!”
It was around this time that D’Angelo ramped up his efforts to conquer the Canadian entertainment industry. In 2007, he released his first solo single, “You Gotta Believe to Believe.” In 2009, he released a slightly ridiculous R&B cover of “Silent Night,” reportedly to raise money for homeless charities, but publicized with high-priced TV spots. In 2010, he launched his talk/variety hour, The Being Frank Show, which airs in a purchased timeslot (Friday at midnight) on CHCH and is exactly the same show as Aces Wild with Sam Rothstein.
Conspicuously absent from D’Angelo’s memoir is any mention of his June 2007 arrest for sexual assault. The ensuing trial ended in April 2009 with a not guilty verdict, although Justice John Hamilton acknowledged that D’Angelo “may be” or was “probably” guilty. In response, D’Angelo’s attorney Gary Clewley told the press, “A guy was found not guilty and in this country it means he didn’t do it.”
Shortly thereafter, D’Angelo held a party at his Forget About It! Supper Club, where two crown attorneys and an OPP sergeant were present. As a result, D’Angelo and sergeant Michael Rutigliano were charged the next day with obstructing justice and conspiracy. In 2010, D’Angelo’s charges were stayed.
Real Gangsters!™ (2013) was D’Angelo’s first feature film as writer/director, and though his craft has improved since, it is still the quintessential D’Angelo experience. Set in New York, but shot in Toronto (especially the Forget About It! Supper Club, where TTC streetcars zip past the window), it stars D’Angelo and Nick Mancuso as two cousins who run a feared New York mob empire—Mancuso the brains, D’Angelo the brawn. The cousins have maintained a delicate balance through the years, but that threatens to unravel with the changing criminal world, as they contend with lawless hooligans on one side, Wall Street criminals on the other. In an evolving criminal landscape, the cousins have to face the challenge of who, exactly, the “real gangsters” are.
This is a workable setup for a mob movie, but it’s basically abandoned for a series of scenes in which Frank D’Angelo gets to be a badass. The fun begins with D’Angelo’s opening narration, a soup of mob-movie clichés beginning with:
“The last thing I remember my mother saying to me was, ‘Jack, my Jackie, I love you with all my heart.’ I gave her a kiss and that was the last time I saw my mother. The finality of life, it sucks big fuckin’ cock.”
There are countless scenes of Frank berating his two henchmen (“I’m with you two fuckin’ morons 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I can’t have one fuckin’ hour to myself, you stupid fuck?”). There are innumerable moments where Frank acts like a tough guy to less-honourable men (“Listen to me carefully, I’m gonna tell you just once. See that ugly fuck? If he stares at me one more time, I’m gonna pull his fuckin’ eyes right out”) **. There is relentless, jarring Frank D’Angelo music on the soundtrack, with Frank’s falsetto often cutting into Frank’s dialogue*** (the D’Angelo Cinematic Universe is a magical place where Frank D’Angelo music plays on every radio station). There’s a pointless interlude where D’Angelo comforts a black-eyed coat check girl, and then confronts her abusive boyfriend—a scene that exists only so Frank can deliver a Tarantino-esque monologue about the golf club he’s about to use as a weapon:
“This is a Japanese samurai golf club. Have you ever heard of a samurai golf club? What a country, eh? They almost get wiped off the fuckin’ face of the earth… two of their big cities are craters… and they come back and fuck us by making better stuff. Graphite shaft with a little bit of gold… titanium head… and you know why they put this little groove in here? So the ball will go 300 fuckin’ yards. It’s such a fuckin’ waste—this magnificent club made by a fuckin’ samurai—that I waste it on a piece of shit like this.”
Right through to the end credits—which roll to a Frank D’Angelo music video—vanity films don’t come any more vain. I won’t pretend Real Gangsters!™ isn’t punishingly inert (there are may, many scenes of grey-haired mobsters having endless conversations in anti-septic restaurants and offices). But if you’re like me, and you get a kick out of seeing a middle-aged Canadian beverage mogul pretend to be Robert De Niro, you’ll have a good time.
No Depo$it is a slightly less delirious experience, mostly because D’Angelo unexpectedly consigns himself to a supporting role. He does, however, kick things off on a suitably ridiculous note with opening narration about the 2008 financial collapse in which he actually imitates President Obama. The film stars Michael Paré as a devoted family man who loses his home when his bank makes an unfair payment demand. After his family leaves him, he falls under the sway of Michael Madsen and Daniel Baldwin, a pair of gangsters who blame America’s economic woes on Jewish bankers. The second half involves Paré, Madsen and Baldwin’s attempted robbery of a Jewish-run bank, and comes to a bizarrely unpleasant climax when they meet a tough-talking Holocaust survivor (Robert Loggia, with full Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie gusto). These scenes are regularly interrupted by a news broadcast in which D’Angelo’s Next Sports Star co-host Tony Ambrogio interviews psychic Georgina Cannon for no discernible reason. D’Angelo’s social commentary isn’t quite with the zeitgeist (are Jewish people widely blamed for the financial collapse?), but if nothing else, No Depo$it gives Uwe Boll’s Assault on Wall Street serious competition as the best shot-in-Canada financial crash thriller with Eric Roberts.
In case No Depo$it doesn’t satisfy your D’Appetite, take comfort: his fourth film arrives later this year. Sicilian Vampire will star D’Angelo as Santino Trafficante, a mobster who “is bitten by a bat released from a container of bananas,” according to the official synopsis. His newfound powers include enhanced sight, supersonic hearing, and superhuman strength, and the trailer offers the tantalizing prospect of a Frank D’Angelo fight scene. The cast will reunite Loggia, Paré, Baldwin, Hindle, Sorvino, Rosato, and Roberts with newcomers Daryl Hannah (as Frank’s wife!), Armand Assante, Robert Davi, James Caan (who dropped out of a Fox TV pilot because of his D’Angelo commitment), Spider Jones (!), and George Chuvalo (!!). The poster tagline—“Loyalty and Trust Is Everything”—suggests the film will not be beholden to traditional vampire mythology.
Sicilian Vampire is due for release in the fall, but one glorious clip has already been released online. While enjoying some Friday night drinks at a swanky restaurant, Santino’s pals insist he take the stage to sing a song with the band. “I don’t wanna go up,” Santino protests, but the boys keep insisting and he reluctantly takes the mic (“The things you make me fuckin’ do – actin’ like my fuckin’ old lady,” he grunts). Of course, once the music starts, Santino is in his element, iffily lip-synching a guttural rendition of “Just a Gigolo” with a lot of Cab Calloway scatting. The crowd goes wild, Santino’s buddies cheer, and Santino smiles and looks down at his shoes.
Why would Frank D’Angelo grind his gangster/horror movie to a halt to sing “Just a Gigolo”? What does this song have to do with Sicilian vampires? In what universe does Frank D’Angelo have to be cajoled to sing? We’ve brought up Goodfellas, but the Scorsese movie this scene most calls to mind is The King of Comedy—specifically, the part where wannabe-comedian Rupert (Robert De Niro) fantasizes about dinner at Sardi’s with the king of late night, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). In Rupert’s daydream, an overworked Jerry begs him to take over his talk show “for just six weeks.” “I’ll give you anything, but don’t ask me to do six weeks!” moans Rupert to his imaginary hero. “I can’t take over the show for six weeks! I can’t even take over my own life for six weeks!” Grudgingly, Rupert agrees, but not before his mom yells at him to be quiet, nearly breaking his reverie.
Unlike Rupert, who had to kidnap Jerry Langford for a shortcut to fame, Frank D’Angelo has the resources to stage his fantasies. Rupert staged a talk show in his basement, performing to cardboard cutouts; Frank, with his boyish entrepreneurialism, has figured out how to do the same on a bigger scale.
Frank D’Angelo’s No Depo$it opens at the Scotiabank Theatre and other GTA theatres on June 19. Real Gangsters!™ will make its world television premiere on CityTV, June 27 at 9 p.m.
*A book that this journalist devoured in a single afternoon.
**Real Gangsters!™ is the most gratuitously foul-mouthed movie this journalist has ever seen. Sample line: “I’m done. I’m in a fuckin’ bad mood. And I’m hurtin’. My fuckin’ hair hurts this morning, you understand, you cocksuckers? Now whip that smile off your fuckin’ face you fuckin’ motherfucker. Gimme the fuckin’ keys, get in the fuckin’ car.”
***Fun fact: When this journalist ordered it from D’Angelo’s website, the Real Gangsters!™ Blu-Ray turned out to just be a supplementary disc of the Real Gangsters!™ soundtrack album, Just Give Me One More Moment.