Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Ennio Morricone’

No movie this year is likely to have a more impressive or gorgeous soundtrack than Guiseppe Tornatore’s Ennio. The title itself is a dead giveaway as to the reason why: this is a documentary about the life and career of Ennio Morricone, the – and here one must pause for a moment to express regret that the language has become so debased, and some words so overused – legendary musician and composer. (The Italian title of the movie is Ennio – The Master.) Morricone departed from this frame of existence in 2020, a fact the film does not acknowledge despite it being completed after this happened. But on the other hand it does suggest that Morricone’s music will always be with us, and so to what extent can we really say that he has gone?

There is a good deal of gushing about Morricone’s work before the film is over, but this is not just a puff piece or a hagiography – it’s a film which strives to take both itself and its subject seriously. Given the sumptuous treasures of Morricone’s back catalogue, the film opens with the somewhat bold choice of no music whatsoever, just a ticking metronome. This plays over film of the 90-odd Morricone going about his daily fitness regime with great seriousness. (Exercise the Ennio Way was never released as a workout DVD, but I don’t think this is a great loss to the sum total of human culture.)

Various contributors say nice things about Morricone and it soon becomes clear that this documentary is not going to be indulging in any great formal innovations or stylistic surprises. We learn about Morricone’s childhood in occupied Rome, and his relationship with his father, who insisted he learn to play the trumpet. This led to studies at a conservatoire by day, and jazz trumpeting by night, and so on. By the early 1960s he was in enormous demand as an arranger of material in the Italian pop industry, which eventually led to a commission to write a film score – and ultimately a series of collaborations with his old school friend Sergio Leone, resulting in a series of movies which would change the face of cinema forever.

I would happily have turned up to the cinema just to listen to a selection of Morricone’s greatest hits for two and a half hours – this film is not afraid to go into some detail – and so it was a little disappointing that few of his most celebrated compositions get played at length. But I suppose being able to listen to Ecstasy of Gold whenever you like is one of the things that justifies the existence of the internet, and the documentary is not just here to remind you of things you probably already know about.

I’ve seen at least one documentary on the topic of film composition in general which suggested that the distinctive thing about Morricone’s work is not that he was particularly interested in innovation, but had a mastery of melody unparallelled even amongst other famous film composers. Ennio rather implies that all of this is actually complete balderdash, as it takes pains to give proper credit to Morricone’s other career as a composer of what he called ‘absolute’ music, music for its own sake, much of it highly experimental and avant garde (pieces where tape recorders and typewriters are instruments, and so on). It’s suggested that Morricone was rather dismissive of melodic music, which is a huge surprise given this is the man who wrote (for example) Gabriel’s Oboe.

Then again, one of the themes that recurs again and again throughout the film is Morricone’s own ambivalence about devoting so much of his energy to film music – one contemporary, who chose to work solely as a classical composer and musician, recalls how Morricone referred to to him as a purist, but to himself as a traitor. There are several moments when directors recall offending Morricone by expecting him simply to repeat or debase himself and his craft, usually drawing a fiery response as a result.

However, the film also chronicles Morricone’s ascent from simple movie composer to internationally revered artist, and in the process it touches upon all the things you might expect – his work on the Eastwood-Leone spaghetti westerns, culminating in his titanic score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and then eventually moving on to the extraordinary period in the 1980s where he provided scores for Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and The Untouchables in the space of a few years. The creation of the score for The Mission is covered in particular detail, a section which concludes with an especially irascible Morricone complaining that the eventual winner of the Oscar for Best Score (Morricone’s lack of success at the Academy Awards does seem like one of those bizarre historical anomalies) should not in fact have been eligible for the category.

Of course, Morricone worked almost until the end of his life, and – rather charmingly – eventually received a competitive Oscar nearly ten years after being given an honorary lifetime achievement award. It’s on this note that the film chooses to conclude, mentioning in passing the abiding popularity and influence of Morricone’s music.

As I say, it’s a serious piece of work, seeking to inform as much as entertain – there’s a lot of relatively technical music theory mentioned in passing. On the other hand, one thing which happens over and over again is Morricone (and others) attempting to talk about music, finding that the human voice fails them, and resorting to going dee-de-dah-de-tumpty-tump as an expression of what they’re trying to say, which is oddly endearing. Music does seem to spill out of Morricone throughout the film; one contributor suggests that his work constitutes prima facie evidence for the existence of God, the kind of assertion which might give one pause if it were said about almost anyone else.

Needless to say, the film is not short of people willing to come on and sing the Maestro’s praises, including film directors and musicians of all stripes. One almost gets the sense that Tornatore was simply collecting big-name contributors, some of whom just come on for a few seconds. It would certainly have been interesting to hear more from John Williams (surely the only person to seriously challenge Morricone for the title of most celebrated movie composer of all time) and Hans Zimmer (one of the dominant figures in the genre these days), but the film chooses quantity over depth.

At over two and a half hours, this is a substantial piece of work, and the sheer seriousness and comprehensiveness of it may also make it challenging for some viewers (as noted, it’s not just the well-known tunes, but more obscure phases of Morricone’s career and some of his avant garde work). But it comes back again and again to the fact that Ennio Morricone spent decades making some of the most beautiful art of the twentieth century. Much of it is there in the documentary, which makes it a wonderful reminder as well as an impressive guide to the great man’s career. Worth watching for anyone interested in music, or cinema as an art form.

 

Read Full Post »

There’s a danger that the general comprehensive grimness of much of this year will end up eclipsing the fact that there have been positive glimmerings of different kinds, as well. But neither should we let the disaster of the pandemic obscure other regrettable events that we might ordinarily have paid more attention to. Of course, our culture operating in the way that it does, we are approaching the time of year where tributes to some of the people we have lost make convenient and popular material to fill airtime. They showed Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables the other night, primarily as a tribute to Sean Connery, but of course it works just as well as a reminder of the gifts of Ennio Morricone.

This is one of those movies I originally ended up watching quite without meaning to. The film got its UK TV premiere back in 1991, when my sister – I hope she will forgive me for revealing this – had a bit of an adolescent crush on Kevin Costner. You can be silly when you’re young, and the fact that she wanted to tape The Untouchables (despite being a few years too young to watch it, strictly speaking) was enough to put me off the idea of seeing it. And yet, for whatever reason, I ended up watching the very beginning of the film, fully intending to switch off.

I learned a couple of important lessons that night: the most obvious one, that it’s possible for people you may have differences of opinion with to still like great movies, but also about the power of a great film soundtrack. Something about the main theme, with its drivingly urgent percussion and strings, hooked me instantly, and gave me the strongest impression that this was a movie made by people who really knew their craft.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie did nothing to dispel this impression. The story takes place in 1930, and concerns itself with the consequences of prohibition: specifically the rise of immensely wealthy and powerful gangsters, and the rise in violent crime accompanying this. One of these men, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has reached the point where he has essentially become the unelected mayor of Chicago. However, Capone’s organisation is responsible for one atrocity too many and the government appoints Eliot Ness (Costner), an earnest and idealistic young agent of the Treasury, to bring the bootleggers to justice.

However, Ness’ initial operations end farcically, and it soon becomes apparent that the Chicago police department is as corrupt and compromised as the rest of the city’s establishment – well, almost. A disconsolate Ness encounters veteran beat cop Malone (Connery), who does seem – to coin a cliche – like the one honest policeman in the city. Against his better judgment, Malone helps Ness assemble a team including sharpshooting young cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountancy expert Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and they set about finding a way to bring Capone down…

This is, of course, the film that Sean Connery won an Oscar for. Some would say ‘finally’, although this rather depends on whether you’re of the school of thought that Academy Awards should genuinely reward the best pieces of film acting in a given year, or go to people with lengthy careers and impressive bodies of work as movie stars. I’ve often been quite lukewarm about Connery and his acting – there’s a good deal of potboiling dross on the Connery CV, alongside the undeniable classics – and the baffling accent he deploys as the supposedly Irish-American cop Malone is distracting, to say the least. In theory Connery is doing the same kind of thing as in Highlander a year or two earlier: he’s the wise old mentor, imparting his wisdom to a slightly dull and callow lead before obligingly letting himself be killed off in the second act, in order to allow the hero to have the spotlight to himself for the climax to the film. In Highlander it’s just a big character turn, with Connery at his twinkliest – but here, he manages to bring the film heft and depth, as well as humour. This is certainly one of Connery’s best films outside of the early Bonds, and it’s largely as good as it is because of his performance.

Nevertheless, a classic movie is rarely a one-man-show, and even before Connery appears and after he departs, the rest of the movie is slick and effective: it’s true that Costner initially comes across as a rather bland and insipid hero, but that’s almost the point – the journey here is of a man being blooded, only achieving success at the cost of losing some of his innocence. This finds its apotheosis in the moment when Ness finds Capone’s chief enforcer, the man who has killed many innocents and two of Ness’ friends, and has him at his mercy. The camera does an enormous zoom into mega-close-up on Costner’s eyes, and you can see the conflict in them as he contemplates simply killing the man out of hand: one of Costner’s finest moments, I would say.

Of course, the zoom and the mega-close-up are very obvious directorial effects, but then this is a Brian De Palma film and a degree of show-offishness comes with the territory: this is one of Tarantino’s favourite film-makers, after all. De Palma has lots of fun with long fancy shots and other tricks in the course of the film, but this never becomes downright irritating. He also manages to pull off the bravura sequence with the gunfight on the train-station steps and the lengthy build-up to it: it would almost seem pretentious to drop such an obvious homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin into what is, after all, a studio gangster movie, were it not that De Palma manages to make it work so well.

Understated restraint isn’t really De Palma’s thing, and the way the film ping-pongs between bloody violence and some quite sentimental scenes would usually be tricky to pull off. However, he has Morricone in his corner, and the composer supplies a score which draws the viewer in and manages to smooth the various transitions, as well as being lush and beautiful to listen to. It’s not quite the case that the soundtrack makes the movie, but once again it makes a significant contribution to it.

Film-making is a collaborative exercise, in the end, and the quality of this film is another reminder of that. On paper, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special – maybe even a bit hackneyed and predictable. But the contributions of De Palma, Morricone, writer David Mamet, Connery, Costner, and the rest of the cast crew result in something which is entertaining, powerful, and even oddly poetic and beautiful in places. This is the kind of film anyone would be happy to be remembered for.

Read Full Post »