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Ennio: The Maestro (2021)

Giussepe Tornatore’s mesmerising documentary about his late friend and collaborator Ennio Morricone – they first worked together on Cinema Paradiso – is a detailed, passionate account of the evolution of the extraordinary and prolific composer’s technique, signature and impact. It’s replete with archive clips, excerpts from films and interviews from many of his colleagues and the maestro himself. He learned the trumpet just like his father who was a professional musician, and trained in composition under Petrassi for ten years. It was a tough and emotionally fraught apprenticeship. He broke through when he first wrote a ricenare and after getting a contract to work at RAI arranging pop songs he also worked in improvisation with the group Nuova Consonanza who made ‘traumatic sounds.’ It was usual for Morricone to look for tin cans for instrumentation, or typewriters or splashing water. He liked people to whistle as part of his orchestration. He did striking arrangements and always came up with an innovative opening so that songs would be quite unforgettable. He came up with musical phrases that could constantly run after each other. He started in cinema when he conducted and wrote arrangements and then was hired to write scores for westerns with many done under pseudonyms. He wrote up to two dozen a year. When Sergio Leone approached him they realised they had been classmates at primary school. Their collaborations on the Dollars Trilogy is for the ages. He felt his work on A Fistful of Dollars to be his weakest but it led his mentor Petrassi to finally acknowledging him. Petrassi was hired by John Huston to score The Bible but Huston rejected it and selected Morricone to replace him: this story has its Oedipal aspect. Far from specialising in tonality, Morricone did melody in canny ways and wrote hit songs. With Se Telefonando he discovered he could write three alternating stresses in 4/4 time. This led to remarkable work on Love Circle, a standout piece of orchestration with two themes that crossed each other. With Once Upon a Time in the West the first 20 minutes consist of concrete music, inspired by an incident onstage in Florence by the actions of a stage hand because Morricone performed regularly and always took inspiration from everything around him. It’s no coincidence that my father never worked with another musician, says Raffaella Leone, Sergio’s film producer daughter. I tried to make different music. Pasolini never used Bach again on his soundtracks once he had hired Morricone. When Morricone composed for The Silence Sergio Corbucci was stunned but Morricone shrugged it off and explained he had no sound effects competing for attention in this western set in snow. He wrote the scores for a total of twenty-three thrillers and Dario Argento’s father complained that they all sounded the same to him but Morricone explains that his work in dissonant sounds meant listeners were destabilised and those scores were in fact all different. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion was another turning point. He turned to the symphonic form for Fraulein Doktor and when it came to writing the score for The Sicilian Clan it was based on Bach’s name – using the notes B, A, C – surely an irony of sorts. I am made up of everything that music was. Bertolucci comments, Ennio moves in the music.With The Mission he came up with three themes, starting with the oboe solo, which ran across and with the vocal and ethnic themes – accidentally. His composition does remarkable things with the female voice – the human instrument, unfiltered. He lost out on the Academy Award to Herbie Hancock’s arrangements of classic jazz in Round Midnight: not the originality one craves however admirable. Leone worked hand in hand with Morricone developing Once Upon a Time in America over a period of years to the extent that the music was played to guide scenes: Morricone even used a theme he had written for Zefirelli’s Endless Love which he removed when he discovered there was already song written by someone else. He was accustomed to recycling and revisiting his own work and even took work from Liliana Cavani’s The Cannibals and used it in Burn! because Pontecorvo loved it so much. He worked with new directors as a matter of course. He was nominated again for an Academy Award for the brilliant work on The Untouchables but lost out. When Oliver Stone asked him to work on U-Turn the director insulted him by playing Tom and Jerry cartoons to emphasise his desire that the composer return to what he did on spaghetti westerns thirty years before. A score must be meaningful itself. The Academy was embarrassed by their failure to acknowledge him and celebrated him with an honorary Oscar in 2007 – presuming he was finished. But he kept working. He wondered why Tarantino approached him to write for The Hateful Eight since the director usually played parts of other scores and songs. Nonetheless he did something completely different for that singular western – a true symphony. He finally got his Academy Award for that score in 2016. He wrote more than 400, aside from his 100 classical compositions, his work in jazz and improv and many pop collaborations. Bertolucci comments: Ennio managed to merge prose and poetry. We lost Morricone in July 2020 but his music is eternal. This is 150 minutes of pure, instructive joy. Music should be thought before it is written

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About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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