VOD film review: Ennio
James R | On 23, Apr 2022
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Cast: Ennio Morricone, Quentin Tarantino, Hans Zimmer, John Williams
“There’s a thought that must be developed and it has to go forward. In search… of what?” That’s Ennio Morricone talking about composing music in the astonishing documentary Ennio. The maestro, who has given cinema such iconic soundtracks as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Mission, was a master at understanding the relationship between music and rhythm – that every note can only last for a finite time, every tune must move forward. He was unbeatable at crafting momentum on and off-screen, at building tension that must lead to resolution – and that cathartic, inevitable progress is at once visceral and profound. Giuseppe Tornatore’s documentary captures all these truths in 156 sprawling minutes.
A two-hour-plus chronicle of the Italian composer’s life and career hardly sounds like the easiest watch, and the film certainly goes into exhaustive detail about almost every work he ever wrote. And yet it’s a beautifully accessible affair, one that – much like Morricone’s own inspiring legacy and achievement – perfectly straddles the line between the intellectual and the emotional.
We begin with his studying under Italian composer Petrassi, who led him to his fascination with counterpoint – courtesy of the Italian dance Ricercare, exemplified by the work of Frescobaldi. Before that, he was ordered by his trumpet-playing father to follow suit and learn the trumpet, which leaves a poignant trace throughout his career, as Ennio refused to put trumpets in his work to avoid offending his father, who was ill and couldn’t play as he once did – and, following his father’s passing, embraced the brash beauty of brass with relish.
That paved the way to legendary status thanks to Morricone’s work on Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, but Tornatore (who worked with Morricone on Cinema Paradiso) gives us so much than just Ennio’s greatest hits. We learn of how he jobbed through RCA records and caught the world’s attention through his orchestrations backing numerous pop hits, how he was so fast at arranging music that he would work on a TV comedy series the night before it was broadcast, and – perhaps most crucial of all – how his time with an experimental group inspired his love of contorting instruments to make weird sounds and manipulating non-musical items into instruments in their own right, from typewriters to splashing water.
That understanding of how to employ sound as melody resulted in some of the most innovative and influential movie soundtracks in history – Ennio’s gift, we hear time and time again, was to make music that always suited the emotional quality of the film in question yet still sounded unmistakeably like Morricone. Throughout, Ennio remained humble (“I didn’t think I was an innovator”), partly thanks to his inner complex about the inferiority of movie music vs the “purity” of classical music – a viewpoint instilled in him by Petrassi that caused him to develop into two separate musical personalities.
Tornatore’s empathy for that artistic dilemma is matched by an awe for his technical prowess and confidence, with Ennio himself excitedly explaining his use of ostinato, mordent, gruppetto and grace notes, not to mention his natural instinct for writing multiple themes at once – and, sometimes unintentionally, ones that can be played together simultaneously.
The talking heads range from Morricone, Tarantino and Hans Zimmer to John Williams, Bruce Springsteen and Metallica, and Tornatore always introduces the titles after they begin speaking – the importance is consistently placed on what they have to say more than who they are, just as the film prioritises the music over the movies they accompany. It’s a dizzying, engrossing and hugely moving celebration of a unique talent, and demonstrates how his always-moving-forward mentality – with its playful and heartfelt honesty – fittingly leaves us with generations of composers who pay his influence forward in almost every genre imaginable.