Pietro Marcello is the director who recently gave us the much-loved drama Martin eden, transposing the novel by Jack London in Italy. He has now made this documentary, a labor of love tribute to one of Bologna’s most beloved sons: musician and singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla. It’s probably aimed at Dalla’s existing fan base, rather than newcomers (which I admit includes me), but it’s an engaging study, opening a window into the heart of the world. Post-war Italy, and incidentally gives this newspaper a cameo role.

Dalla emerges from the film somewhere between American Bob Dylan and Frenchman Jacques Brel, but otherwise completely in a genre of his own. He was a former cherub child star who played, sang and played instruments and grew up to be a somewhat disconcertingly unpretentious and even ugly man: he cheerfully recognized the nickname of spider, or spider, because of its famous shaggy image. (Photos of him in a bathing suit show someone almost covered in fur.) In his later years of glory and wealth, he actually owned a yacht called the Catarro (or Phlegm), due to his habit of coughing and to stutter. But in fact, he had a rather humorous and sensitive face, a bit like Phil Collins.

Dalla had a successful recording career in jazz and pop, but he only became an Italian legend when he teamed up with the Bologna poet Roberto Roversi, who contributed lyrics – a kind of Bernie High-spirited Taupin to Elton John de Dalla – and the duo have created complex and daring concept albums, with all kinds of bold commentary on Italian politics and society. A TV clip shows a roundtable, featuring politicians and journalists relying on Dalla.

His most notable album was probably Automobili (or Automobiles) from 1976, on Italy’s love affair with cars, and in particular the now defunct road endurance race, the Mille Miglia, which took place annually to national effervescence from the 1920s to the 1950s. The opening track is a long riff, imagining the bland, pompous and evasive responses given by Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli to a Guardian reporter – although Dalla lists it as the “Manchester Guardian” – on the sale of a stake in Fiat to Libya with possible loss of Italian jobs. What other pop star, anywhere in the world, could have created a song from the Guardian’s headlines about the auto industry and unemployment?

The documentary interviews Dalla’s director and devoted friend, Tobia Righi, and uses plenty of black and white archival footage of Bolognese life as this town has been transformed into a place of crowded urban modernity. It may be more for insiders and specialists, but this film is a taste of Italian life.