Even if you have trouble with the idea of God, says veteran producer David Puttnam in Ennio, Giuseppe Tornatore’s rapturous paean to his late collaborator Ennio Morricone, when you hear his music, “you can hear that there is something out there.” By the standards of Ennio, the suggestion that God dwells in Morricone’s music is nowhere near over the top. “He’s my favorite composer,” whoops Quentin Tarantino, in a torrent of enthusiasm ferocious even by his standards. “And I’m not talking movie composer! I’m talking Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert!”
Ennio Morricone died last year, aged 91. Tornatore, whose best-known collaboration with the maestro was the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso (1988), spent five years assembling archival material and interviewing other directors, musicians and critics about his work. Morricone wrote everything from pop songs to experimental noise music but, of course, is known largely for having scored over 500 films.
No one could actually believe how prolific he was. In a television interview from sometime in the 60s, when the music he wrote for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western The Good, The Bad And The Ugly became — as it remains — universally famous and frequently whistled, he was writing 18 scores a year. One of Tornatore’s interviewees remembers him notating music so quickly it looked as if he were writing a letter. He didn’t have a piano in his studio, recalls someone else. He said he didn’t need to play anything: he could already hear every note in his head.
But the great selling point of this very long documentary that played out of competition at the Venice Film Festival is what was clearly an exhaustive interview with the maestro himself. What he says is interesting without being particularly revelatory. We learn that the young Ennio started out playing the trumpet in café orchestras during the post-war occupation of Italy, passing a hat round the American soldiers for food. We see that he had a long and happy marriage to Maria, who was always his first listener. We hear him restate his opposition to melody; as a devotee of Stravinsky, he liked dissonance. All fine, but the real value of the interview is that, as he talks, you get a strong sense of the man.
Morricone was always described as shy. He resisted praise, sloughing off the Tarantino remark by saying that you wouldn’t know for another 200 years whether he rated with Mozart or not. At the same time, he had a strong sense of his own worth. There are Oscars he thought he should have won and isn’t at all shy about saying so.
He was also quite willing to walk away if he felt a director wasn’t respecting him. Oliver Stone recalls trying to explain what he wanted for his movie U-Turn by showing Morricone a Tom & Jerry cartoon; Morricone stormed off, saying he would go back to Rome and write him some rubbish. Stone says Morricone didn’t understand him. But he did write the score in the end, very much as Stone wanted it.
Ennio clocks in at a chunky 168 minutes, which is asking for a big time investment in what might be regarded as a specialist subject. For most of that time, moreover, it hits a single, unvarying note of unalloyed, enthusiastic reverence. Even so — and even for someone who finds the lushness of his music frequently cloying — its fascination never flags.
Hearing musicians from Hans Zimmer to Bruce Springsteen talk about music provides its own set of insights. We get to watch clips from both favorite and forgotten films, many of which make you want to watch that film immediately. And we can marvel at Morricone’s recall of phrases he wrote years ago; the man was like a sound archive, in that he apparently forgot nothing. All these things make for a great on-the-couch watch, as well as being an admirable contribution to film history. And for the Morricone buffs, there is the thrill of hearing the maestro hum his own tunes. Be warned, however: by his own admission, he was a truly terrible singer.