Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino (2003) – By Paul Busetti


It will be argued for decades amongst cinephiles as to what is Martin Scorsese’s magnum Opus. While Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas are all more groundbreaking and iconic, “Casino” finds Scorsese in total control and an absolute master of his gifts. Although flawed, it is impossible to deny that his 1995 mob epic is a perfect marriage of subject and storyteller. “Casino” is a towering testament to ego, unhealthy desire and hubris. Unfairly looked upon on its release as the slightly bloated little brother of “Goodfellas”, some felt it to be too frenetic, flashy, or unwieldy. It is of course, the natural extension of the cocaine fueled third act of the 1990 classic. After all, in “Casino”, Scorsese literally puts the camera inside an enormous cocaine straw as it hoovers up the drug. Similarly to its leaner predecessor, “Casino” is based on a nonfiction book by Nick Pileggi which he (along with Scorsese) adapted for the screen. Pileggi uses pseudonyms and aliases as well as combining real life players into composite characters. Casino Boss Sam “Ace” Rothstein is based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and violent enforcer Anthony Spilotro provided the basis for Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro.

Joseph E. Alexandre’s short documentary “Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino” is not a film so much as a supplemental DVD extra (in fact the doc was used on the French DVD release of “Casino”). While “Casino” dealt with the glory days and dizzying heights the mob took the desert oasis to in the 70s and early 80s, “Back Home” refers to Chicago, the unnamed home base of the Spilotro and Rosenthal surrogates.

The doc is populated by people who knew Rosenthal, Spilotro, and some of the other characters from their time in the Windy City. Since some of these events happened almost 40 years ago, most of these interviewees were children when it all took place. This gives their reminiscences a naïve and unique quality. “Back Home” peppers in archival news footage and clips from the film to bolster the interviews. Most of them are solid and have a lot to contribute but since many of them are unnamed and others go so far as to give their testimony shrouded in darkness, it’s easy to lose track of the different storytellers. Even in their anonymity, they appear uncomfortable and paranoid to participate. They seem bent on being important and connected to dangerous men but the truth is they don’t divulge any damning information and even if they did, anyone involved in the crimes is long dead. The standout however is a hard as nails business owner who tangled with Spilotro and does not hide in the shadows when he speaks his mind.

“Back Home” does not exist as an article to refute the story or correct omissions made in “Casino”. If anything, Scorsese seems to have nailed the details. But it doesn’t give enough insight into the complicated nature of the tale either and Alexandre doesn’t have access to any blue chip subjects (family members, law enforcement, or actual connected mob members) that would make this essential viewing. As it stands, it is strictly for diehard fans of Scorsese’s masterpiece.