‘Ennio’ Review: Morricone and His Mastery of Film Scores

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Days of Heaven,” “Before the Revolution,” “1900,” “The Untouchables,” “Kill Bill,” “Django Unchained,” “The Mission,” “The Thing,” “Fists in the Pocket,” “The Battle of Algiers,” “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage,” “Bugsy,” “Bulworth,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” — if you’ve watched a movie in the last half century there’s a good chance that you’ve heard music by Ennio Morricone, the titanic Italian composer and arranger who helped define films as we know and hear them.

When Morricone died at the age of 91 in 2020, it seemed almost hard to believe given how expansive his reach had been and, well, how long he’d been part of my movie life. (His death was announced with a statement he titled: “I, Ennio Morricone, am dead.”) When I was a kid, we had an LP of his soundtrack for Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!” (1970), a period epic about a British intelligence officer (Marlon Brando) who’s sent to a fictional Portuguese colony to stir up trouble. A audiocassette of the soundtrack is stashed somewhere in my house; every so often, I listen to it on Spotify and am again transported by Morricone’s soaring music.

In “Ennio,” a lively, absorbing documentary about the composer, Morricone discusses his work on “Burn!” and so many other films. Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, it is a crowded, hyperventilated portrait stuffed with archival and original material, including interviews with Morricone shot in 2015 and 2016. Like several other filmmakers, Tornatore worked repeatedly with Morricone, a partnership that began with “Cinema Paradiso” (1990), the director’s soppy heart-tugger about a friendship between a theater projectionist and the boy he schools who becomes a filmmaker. It’s perhaps no surprise that “Ennio” is another cinephilic paean.

With help from Morricone, whose interviews anchor the documentary, Tornatore ably fills in the composer’s family history, though the details become sketchier as the musician’s fame steadily grows. Morricone’s father, Mario, was a trumpet player, and soon Ennio was playing it, too. He began composing music as a child and studied it formally at a conservatory in Rome, where one of his teachers was the composer Goffredo Petrassi. A force in Italian modernist music, Petrassi became a towering figure for his student, the embodiment of a serious patrimony that seemed (to some) at odds with Morricone’s commercial work.

One of the movie’s nice surprises is that Morricone turns out to be a total charmer, a low-key showman with a demure gaze that he works like a vamp and an impish smile that routinely punctuates one of his anecdotes. The movie opens with him speed walking in a circle inside a spacious, elegantly shambolic apartment before pausing to execute some calisthenics. It’s an amusing introduction that suggests Morricone’s vitality and determination, as if he were preparing for another leg in the extraordinary marathon of his life. Or maybe he was warming up for this movie, which runs 2 hours and 36 minutes, though never feels like a slog, even with its frustratingly unmodulated pacing. There’s much to see and to hear, most of it delightful.

Among the most engaging sections are those involving Morricone’s work with Sergio Leone. They first collaborated on Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” a western set in Mexico, shot in Spain and starring a television actor on hiatus, straight from Hollywood, named Clint Eastwood. Although Morricone and Leone shared some history, they were not initially on the same wavelength when they started work on the film. Leone was reinventing the genre and drawing liberally from many of his adored influences. He lifted the story from Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (Kurosawa later sued), and Leone told Morricone that he wanted to use some music from Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo” for the climatic duel in “Dollars.”

Affronted that Leone would use someone else’s music, Morricone threatened to quit, but then, as happened throughout his life, he had a stroke of brilliance: He dusted off an old lullaby he’d written to which he added a choir and a lonely trumpet, creating a piece of music that was at once distinct and evoked what Leone admired in “Rio Bravo.” It had wit, drama, mystery and genre provenance. And it seemed to emerge from the character: As Eastwood’s gunslinger arrives to face his enemies in a town square, the trumpet mixes with the sounds of the hard-blowing wind and the character’s rhythmic footfalls, conveying his isolation and resolve. Like the film’s main theme — with its whistling and cracking whips — it also expresses Morricone.

It took a while for the world to catch up with what he was doing — and the way he bridged musical realms and blurred the lines between the serious and the pop until those lines became immaterial. It’s worth remembering that most American film critics hated “A Fistful of Dollars” when opened in the United States in 1967, three years after it blew up the Italian box office. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was outraged by its violence, its “cool, non-hero” and absence of moralism. He and others also went after Morricone’s music, with Crowther writing that it “betrays tricks and themes that sound derivative.”

Crowther would probably have been surprised at the parade of Morricone true believers from every corner of the music and film worlds Tornatore has gathered in the movie: musicians like Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen, directors like Quentin Tarantino and Wong Kar Wai, compatriots like John Williams and Quincy Jones. Eastwood is here, too, as he should be, and appears in some old behind-the-scenes footage and in a more recent interview in which he talks about “A Fistful of Dollars.” Morricone’s music, he says, helped “dramatize me, which is hard to do.” Eastwood delivers the line with a chuckle and with perfect timing that Morricone would surely have appreciated — genius like recognizes like.

Not rated. Viewers should know that the documentary includes disturbing images from Sept. 11. Running time: 2 hours 36 minutes. In theaters.

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