‘Ennio’ Review: Ennio Morricone, the Maestro of the Movie Soundtrack, Gets the Entrancing Documentary He Deserves

If would be hard to name an artist in any medium who illustrated Flaubert’s famous maxim of creativity (“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”) better than Ennio Morricone. Morricone, who died in 2020 (at 91), was certainly one of the greatest composers of movie soundtracks who ever lived. But even if you consider him next to his fellow giants (Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Nino Rota, Hans Zimmer, Max Steiner), Morricone scaled his own wild peak, inventing his own kind of beauty, his own transcendent cacophony. Yet you would never have guessed it to look at him.

“Ennio,” directed by Guiseppe Tornatore (“Cinema Paradiso”), is a 156-minute portrait of Morricone built around an extensive interview with the composer. (It also includes comments from a murderers’ row of filmmakers and artists.) The movie opens on a beating metronome, which seems to set the orderly, clockwork rhythm of Morricone’s life. Strolling into his ornately furnished living room, he walks quickly, not like a man of 90, and his voice is light and direct. We hear a barrage of quotes from people paying tribute to his talent (Bernardo Bertolucci, Bruce Springsteen, Dario Argento, Pat Metheny, Clint Eastwood), and someone says that Morricone has the quality of always being himself…and always being someone else. “We’re talking about a genius,” says another. But it’s Lina Wertmüller who says the most interesting thing. “A very peculiar man,” she recalls, adding, “He was crazy. That’s for sure.”

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The Morricone we see in “Ennio” does not look crazy. On the contrary, he looks like a paragon of highly cultivated middle-class sanity. But I think, in a funny way, that that’s just what Wertmüller meant. She was asking: How did that music come out of this man? In the middle of the 1960s, when he first came to prominence, Morricone had the look of a young professor, or maybe a tax accountant who had considered the priesthood and rejected it (just like Martin Scorsese): the trim black hair and dark-rimmed glasses, the handsome mousy deadpan, the persistent modesty about everything. And the more we hear of his music, in all its fabulous and voluptuous eclecticism (the swooning pop songs; the Western scores that sounded like ghostly Mexican rock ‘n’ roll frontier acid trips; the political-drama soundtracks for films like “The Battle of Algiers” that were as charged-up as the revolutions they were about; the descents into mad experimental clatter; the transcendent romanticism that infused his beloved later work), the more we may have the same thought: Where did it come from?

“Ennio,” which was first shown at festivals in 2021, has taken quite a while to reach these shores (it opens today). Yet it was well worth the wait. The film devotes itself entirely to a celebration and exhaustive analysis of Morricone’s music — it’s a portrait of the artist as virtuoso soundtrack renegade. Watching “Ennio,” you barely learn such essential details about Morricone as the fact that he had four children; that he lived his entire life in Rome; that he was married to the same woman, Maria Travia, for 63 years, right up until his death (they were, by all accounts, devoted to each other); or what he liked to eat, or where he liked to go on vacation.

In a sense, though, we don’t need to learn those things, because simply by inviting the audience to bask in Morricone’s staid, meticulous, at times mischievously self-serious personality, the movie allows us to revel in the grand paradox of who he was. Composers, as a rule, are often fastidious types, but Ennio Morricone, though he composed as meticulously as a scientist (he would sometimes be writing scores while talking on the telephone), had a free and radical spirit. He was channeling something ­— maybe nothing less than the mystery of cinema.

And perhaps part of it had to do with the fact that he was a postwar Italian Catholic puritan who, for most of his career, never completely accepted the artistic validity of movie soundtracks. He always felt on some level like he was slumming. The paradox is that this liberated him; it freed him to take chances and try things his peers would not.

Morricone’s father was a professional trumpet player who wanted Ennio to follow in his footsteps. So in 1940, when he was 12, Ennio entered the Saint Cecilia Conservatory and learned to play the trumpet. But his passion was for studying composition under the legendary Goffredo Petrassi, which he did for 10 years. At the conservatory, he was schooled in the majesties of counterpoint, of different melodies winding around each other, as they did in Monteverdi or Stravinsky, a technique he would employ throughout his career, at times unconsciously.

In the ’50s, Morricone started doing arrangements on the sly, working for RCA, and when we hear this early music of his, it’s a revelation. Morricone yearned to be a classical composer; he spent years working to impress his conservatory teachers, long after he’d outgrown them. But he was also in thrall to John Cage and the new noise makers, enraptured by the whole idea of music as sound. In 1960, he arranged the song “Il Barattolo” for the venerable singer Gianni Meccia, and the instrument he featured was someone playing a jar. We see a video clip of the song, and as imagined by Morricone it sounds like “Groovin'” by the Rascals mated with the cocktail-lounge futurism of Esquivel. Morricone’s arrangements exploded into three dimensions, yet he had a pop sensibility that wasn’t so far removed from that of Burt Bacharach, or maybe the spirit of French Yé-yé. He was a modernist romantic, and he drew on both those sides of himself in 1963, when he was asked to score two Western films, “Gunfight at Red Sands” and “Bullets Don’t Argue,” both of which he was slightly embarrassed about (he composed them under pseudonyms).

The films were seen by Sergio Leone, who asked Morricone to collaborate on a movie he was making. It was only when the two met that Ennio recognized his former schoolmate; there’s an enchanting class picture of them, taken when they were about 10, where they’re sitting, grinning, with just one other student in between them. These two understood each other, and the score Morricone wrote for “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) was visionary. The whistling! The cracked whip, the guitar, the anvil. Simply put, there had never been movie music that sounded like this — it seemed to erupt out of the past, and right into the future. Leone asked Morricone to include “Degüello,” the Mexican folk song of death that’s heard in the distance of “Rio Bravo,” and while Ennio didn’t simply want to use that song, he wrote his own spectacular variation on it — music so ecstatic in its melancholy, the trumpet fluttering like a wounded heart, that you can watch that film and have the music dance in your head for weeks. The music was the movie. Morricone literally gave Eastwood’s Man with No Name the soul inside his lethal persona.

The spaghetti Westerns made Morricone a celebrity. Bruce Springsteen speaks for many of us when he talks about the effect that seeing “The Good, the Bad and Ugly” (1966) had on him. The music, with its famous coyote howl (which Morricone imitates with impish glee), seemed to exist in its own pop dreamscape. Once again, it’s as if the movie was accompanying the music.

When you’ve redefined the Western, and the whole concept of the movie soundtrack, as thoroughly as Morricone did in his collaborations with Leone, what do you do for an encore? That’s a trickier challenge than you might think. (You don’t want your career to go downhill from that.) Morricone became insanely prolific. He wrote 21 soundtracks in 1969, and his music just kept getting more daring — for a while, he descended into abrasive experimentalism, which perfectly suited the art-horror films of Dario Argento and other late-’60s mod trips, though Morricone was eventually warned that he was making himself unemployable.

But his playful chromatic theme for the political thriller “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970) turned out to be a landmark. (I haven’t seen that film for 40 years, and as soon as I heard the music in the documentary I remembered every note of it.) His score for “Burn!,” Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 drama of colonialism starring Marlon Brando, is my favorite Morricone soundtrack of all time. You listen to the song “Abolisson” (we see Morricone conducting a massive orchestra-and-choir version of it in concert), and you hear the very essence — the incandescence — of freedom. It’s like “Louie, Louie” rewritten by J.S. Bach in homage to every uprising against oppression of the 20th century.

Morricone wrote over 400 soundtracks (more than any other movie composer), and a great many of them were for Italian films that never made it to the States. I used to study the CD covers of them in the spectacular Tower Records soundtrack section, an entire block of which was devoted to Morricone. He was happy to stay rooted in Rome, where the world’s most celebrated filmmakers could come to him. His biggest regret is having missed out on the chance to write the score for “A Clockwork Orange.” Stanley Kubrick wanted him to do it, but then Kubrick had a conversation with Sergio Leone in which Leone (out of possessive pique?) suggested that Morricone wouldn’t be fully available. Kubrick never called him after that.

When it comes to his work of the ’70s and beyond, Morricone aficionados love to debate what his greatest scores are, but I have always been struck — a bit sadly — by how much greater most of those scores are than the films they were written for. “The Mission” (1986) is gorgeous; the movie, to me, is claptrap. There are devotees of Morricone who consider his score for Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) to be his masterpiece, and they may be right. When you listen to it, it’s a symphony, as transcendent as passages in Mahler or Rachmaninoff. Yet it deserved to be remembered for enhancing a movie as great as “The Godfather” or “Gone with the Wind.” And I’m sorry, “Once Upon a Time in America” is like “The Godfather” remade as an empty shell of itself. It’s not a good movie (no, not even the super-long version, which just extends the thinness).

Movie composers end up defined, to a large degree, by the films they’ve scored. Bernard Herrmann had the Hitchcock classics. John Williams had “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” Morricone had the spaghetti Westerns, but after a while he had movies like Bertolucci’s elephantine “1900”; his music helped to elevate the films, yet it wasn’t elevated by them. That, I think, is why Morricone kept getting nominated for Oscars and not winning. (He finally won, in 2015, for “The Hateful Eight,” one more example of his knack for drawing the cinematic short straw; the film is far from a Tarantino standout.) To me, the grand exception to the trend was “The Untouchables,” a movie that proved to be just as rousing, and romantically old-fashioned, as Morricone’s swooning theme music for it. And romance really is the key word, since beneath the innovation what you ultimately hear in Morricone’s music is something breathtaking in its romantic grandeur: a beauty as haunting and dreamlike as the cinema itself.

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