30 May 2024
0 6 mins 1 mth


(3 stars)

“You must always make a nice melody,” Libera Ridolfi told her young son, Ennio. “That’s how you will become famous.”

Sticking to that script led Ennio Morricone to become one of the most popular composers in film history; diverging from it made him one of the most influential. The two-time Oscar winner, who died in Rome in 2020 at the age of 91, was a composer and arranger of music that helped define what it sounds like to go to the movies.

With his substantial documentary “Ennio,” director Giuseppe Tornatore — who worked with Morricone for nearly all his films, including 1988’s “Cinema Paradiso” — turns an overdue spotlight on the composer behind the legendary scores of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “The Thing” and more than 500 others. (For comparison, John Williams has “only” around 120.)

Early in the documentary, composer Nicola Piovani refers to Morricone as “a great exception to all the rules.” And certainly one of those exceptions would have to be the start of his career, a conspicuous reversal of a reliable trope: Ennio wanted to be a doctor, but his father insisted the boy follow in his footsteps and take up the trumpet.

At the age of 11, he began performing in variety shows and filling in for his father when he wasn’t well enough to play. The film charts his pre-cinematic progress as a young man, playing trumpet in the conservatory, film orchestras, military bands, variety shows, and experimental ensembles like the Nuova Consonanza Improvisation Group, which specialized in “traumatic sounds.” (So much for Mama’s melodies.)

Morricone started gaining notice with novel pop arrangements for RCA, like the rattling cans in Gianni Meccia’s 1960 hit “Il Barattolo” and the tubs of splashing water in Edoardo Vianello’s “Pinne, fucile ed occhiali.” Morricone’s employment of the experimental as a means to “redeem” the accessible would characterize much of the music he’d make over the half-century that followed. But he also gained a reputation for his compositional craftsmanship and inventiveness — his knack for gilding a pop song with unexpected threads of counterpoint and deft quotation (like the way Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” softly introduces Miranda Martino’s “Voce ’e Notte”).

He got his first scoring credit with Luciano Salce’s 1961 film “The Fascist” (“Il Federale”) and went on to score his first two Westerns (“Gunfight at Red Sands” and “Bullets Don’t Argue”) — though under the pseudonym Dan Savio, so his conservatory teachers wouldn’t find out.

This shame wouldn’t last. From there, a surprise reunion with his boyhood schoolmate, director Sergio Leone, set off one of the most fruitful collaborations in cinema history — from the signature whistle and searing trumpet themes of “A Fistful of Dollars” to the even more signature ones from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

What’s most impactful about “Ennio” is the opportunity to see Morricone as a man and a music lover — twisting in his seat and shaping his hands around the imagined sound of a beloved double fugue he wrote as a young man; or edging up on tears as he recalls the humiliation of playing trumpet as a boy so his family could eat; or as the adult son who stopped writing for trumpet until his father died, so as not to offend him. These fleeting instances of his human vulnerability arrive in compelling contrast to the precise, deliberate craft of his music.

Tornatore brings in a long list of interviewees from the Italian cinema (Martino, Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento), the heights of Hollywood (Williams, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood) and across the musical landscape (Quincy Jones, Pat Metheny, Bruce Springsteen). But the biggest presence in the film is Morricone himself — pacing around his home, stretching out on the floor, palming his forehead at his desk, hunched over a score or conducting “Irene — Dominique” (from Mauro Bolognini’s 1976 film “L’héritage”) by himself in an office that looks freshly visited by a tornado.

At nearly three hours, “Ennio” is a long haul, exhaustive without ever becoming exhausting. Though it could definitely survive some edits, its length feels like the product of genuine ardor and care. Tornatore’s tendency toward information overload is balanced by a clear affection for his subject — the film treats Morricone with the tenderness of a close friend, insisting that we see him for more than the melodies that made him famous.

Unrated. At AFI Silver Theatre (which will also host a “Mondo Morricone” retrospective May 3 through July 11). 156 minutes.



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