Badlands Collective Film Screening - Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director's Cut

Last week I was in London for a few days to attend Photo London. But I also made time to watch a few films, one of them was a special screening of an extended director's cut of Sergio Leone's last film, Once Upon a Time in America, which I couldn't miss.

The screening was organised by Badlands Collective, founded by Phil Concannon, Ian Mantgani and Craig Williams. It took place on a Sunday morning at the Brixton Ritzy.

Once Upon a Time in America was first released in 1984. I saw it on VHS, but can’t remember exactly when, most probably in the late 1980s. Before going in to see the extended version, I couldn’t remember much of the film; apart from a few scenes that stayed with me from the first time I saw it.

Oddly enough, scenes from the film were used in Modern Talking's music video Brother Louie, a hit from 1986. For a while I thought the song was from the film, and when I watched it, I realised it had NOTHING to do with the film. Till today I keep wondering how and why Modern Talking used scenes from a Sergio Leone film. What did Sergio Leone think?

But back to the extended director's cut - it looked magnificent on the big screen. Quoting Martine Scorsese, "a great film just became that much greater".

The extended version is 4 hours and 15 minutes long and is the version that should have been released in 1984 - the one Sergio Leone would have wanted us to see compared to the butchered version that was released in the US. (The US version was re-edited in chronological order and lasted 2 hours and 19 minutes and the European version, presented at Cannes in May 1984, lasted 3 hours and 49 minutes.)

It is a masterpiece and I don't use this word lightly. A poetic film about friendship, love, nostalgia, greed and betrayal set between the 1920 and 1960s.

This extended version has a better flow - it's a fuller film and even though some of the new inserted scenes had a lower quality look to them (there were from discarded strips of film that were originally printed for reference only), they added tension and build up.

Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), re-envisioned the gangster genre. Based on Harry Grey's novel, The Hoods, the story follows the lives of a gang of childhood friends, led by David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz (James Woods), as they rise to prominence in New York City's criminal underworld. 

Spanning a period of American history from the 1920s to the 1960s in a non-chronological structure, Leone and the film's crew meticulously evoked three separate eras through masterful production design, costuming, and a brilliant score by Ennio Morricone.

Exquisitely lensed in the United States and Europe, Once Upon a Time in America was one of the last great epics to be shot before the advent of the digital age. With its unforgettable imagery and powerful performances, the film is the culmination of Sergio Leone’s magnificent career. 

The film was restored by Italy’s Bologna Cinematheque in collaboration with Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and Gucci. Here's a clip where you can hear Martin Scorsese talking about the restoration.

The screening at the Ritzy was followed by a talk and Q & A with Elizabeth McGovern, moderated by Craig Williams. McGovern played the adult Deborah (the young Deborah was acted by a very young Jennifer Connelly). And yes, the Elizabeth McGovern that many of you know as Cora Crawley aka Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey.

McGovern talked about the experience of the screening of the extended version at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival – almost 30 years after the cast and crew worked on it. She described the strange feeling she had seeing the scene where Deborah and Noodles (Robert De Niro) meet 30 years later in the film and how she related that moment with Robert de Niro sitting next to her at the screening, how she and the rest of the cast had gone through their own 30 year journey in their careers.

Answering a question if she and Jennifer Connelly worked together during the film, she said despite the similarities in looks and mannerisms with Jennifer Connelly, they never actually discussed or worked on their characters together.

She also touched upon how she received harsh criticisms for her character Deborah for appearing weak and victimized, but was happy the restored and extended version was able to show Deborah as a much stronger  and empowered character, that she pursued her dreams and succeeded.

One of the audience members asked if Sergio Leone discussed or explained the ending with the cast,  McGovern replied saying that never happened, he left it for his cast and viewers to interpret it themselves.

Also I had no idea she’s a singer/songwriter and fronts a band called Sadie and the Hotheads.

The screening I saw was the UK theatrical premiere and it was the only screening. Sadly there hasn't been any announcement of more screenings in cinemas in the UK or elsewhere, but you can find it on iTunes in some regions. It is also available on Blu Ray.

Hopefully Once Upon a Time in America will gets its cinema-worthy moment for its 40th anniversary in 2024. But if you ever get a chance to watch this version of Once Upon a Time in America, especially on the big screen, please don’t miss it.

I leave you with this short interview with Robert De Niro about Once Upon a Time in America and you can read more about the film and the restortion here.

More images via