The life of Ennio Morricone — composer of transcendent themes for Spaghetti Westerns, award-winners such as The Mission and countless more — might have been a movie by the age of 18. That would have taken us to 1946, a world of drama already unfolded for a boy from Rome who had wanted to become a doctor but was arm-twisted by his hard-up trumpeter father into following his example.
There were German soldiers among his early audiences; then American GIs. The young Morricone was a student too at the esteemed Saint Cecilia Conservatory. And yet, forced to moonlight performing professionally, he arrived exhausted at his final exam with the trumpet-player’s curse: a split lip. What better ending for a stark neorealist Italian fable in the style of Bicycle Thieves?
But Ennio, the burnished new documentary about the creator of much of the greatest film music ever written, still has another 74 years ahead. (Morricone died in 2020.) For a man whose career was spent out of sight, he makes a compelling presence interviewed on-camera for the project, a precise, half-smiling figure narrating events near the end of an extraordinary life. The movie that director Giuseppe Tornatore surrounds him with is at once fascinating and frustrating, made overlong by a conveyor belt of talking heads.
But Tornatore also comes to a wiser decision. He makes the film about the music first, less so the movies. Casual fans may be surprised at how little time is spent on the lonely whistle that conjures A Fistful of Dollars or the “coyote scream” of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But in unpacking Morricone, there is as much to say about — and more biography tied up with — the urbane theme of The Sicilian Clan or the brilliantly playful score of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. So too the dual history in avant-garde experiments and slick 1960s pop that shaped his identity: a composer who could make a single note instantly recognisable as his, while perfectly fitting the movie it was written for.
One talking head does pin down a Morricone hallmark as his use of counterpoint, two musical lines set in contrast with each other. In the film’s portrait as well, a second refrain is always playing. Long after the Conservatory, the academic musical world he still adulated was only ever polite about the business of film scores. What good is it being master of a field which your heroes don’t respect? Between the lines of Tornatore’s reverence, you sense a life spent striving for a legitimacy Morricone may have felt was only partly delivered by the awe of film lovers.
But his place in cinema emerges as double-edged too. His rise came when directors were unrivalled heads of the creative food chain. But the score, Morricone says bluntly, was the rare part of the process they couldn’t easily control. And his own instincts as to what music a movie demanded — on some level, to understand what it really was — often made him every bit as entitled to the mantle of film-maker.
It would be unfair to say Tornatore’s allergy to editing proves the point, but Ennio does make an ideal tribute. For one last time, the biggest reason to see a movie is to hear Morricone.
In UK cinemas from April 22, ennio.film