I suppose there’s a more interesting film to be made about the great composer Ennio Morricone, but watching Giuseppe Tornatore’s loving and comprehensive “Ennio” makes it almost impossible to care. An uncomplicated and reverent tribute that was shot before the late maestro’s death in 2020 (and would feel like a two-and-a-half-hour tribute reel if not for the fact that Morricone himself is the film’s most frequent talking head), this straightforward biodoc is almost perversely generic for a movie that’s meant to honor one of cinema’s greatest radicals.
And yet, do you really not want to see Clint Eastwood deadpanning that Morricone’s music “helped dramatize me, which is really hard to do”? Would a less conventional documentary have been able to squeeze Bruce Springsteen, Wong Kar-wai, and James Hetfield into the same film, or include so much of what Bernardo Bertolucci had to say about the score for “1900”? There’s no doubt that Tornatore could have created a more artistically self-possessed homage to his most iconic collaborator, but then again, didn’t he already do that with “Cinema Paradiso”?
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No film about Morricone could ever speak to his genius as powerfully as the ones that expressed it in the first place, and so “Ennio” is content to explain it — and to celebrate it. Tornatore is happy to do the one thing that most of Morricone’s directors never wanted to do: make a movie that exists in perfect service to its composer. And so his posthumous documentary offers a clear and spirited defense against the maestro’s life-long inferiority complex, even as it concedes to Morricone’s opinion that it will be a few hundred years before we know if he’s worthy of comparison to the likes of Bach and Mozart.
Morricone may have dreamed of becoming a doctor before his trumpeter dad forced him into the family business (a bizarre inversion of how most people find their way into the arts), but from the moment he enrolled in the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia under the tutelage of neoclassicist Geoffredo Petrassi, Morricone was conditioned to believe that popular music was an ignoble pursuit. As a working-class student at an elite institution, Morricone couldn’t help but allow that belief to get tangled up with his own self-worth, and the blockbuster compositions he wrote for singers like Paul Anka felt to him like a failure; he was so embarrassed by his early film work that he used a pseudonym on his first Westerns, even if — for the rest of his life — his eyes would always light up when he remembered the joy of innovating within that genre (first by strumming a guitar to score the sound of galloping hooves, and then later doing a lot more).
Maybe it’s just because music is its own kind of memory, but the aging Morricone has no trouble recalling his melodies, or the meaning behind them; then again, the man continued producing strong work until just before his death, and so perhaps it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Tornatore’s 11th hour documentary finds the composer to be such a sharp and candid interview subject. Morricone is happy to offer a matter-of-fact history of his personal accomplishments, even though Tornatore delegates most of the plaudits to his other talking heads. Major figures like Dario Argento, Barry Levinson, and Hans Zimmer each have few real insights to share, but Tornatore usually just cuts to them for affirmation of Morricone’s genius, which is often delivered in the form of overly broad hyperbole like “Before Morricone, there was only accompaniment — he was the first to try adding something to the arrangement that was superior to the song itself.”
There’s too much ground to cover for “Ennio” to drill all that deep into the individual facets of Morricone’s innovations, but lip-service is paid to the music he mined from everyday objects, to the way that his love for chess informed the geometry of his compositions, and to his tendency of writing dual themes that intermingled with each other as if by accident. Some of these asides feel a bit esoteric in a film that’s also meant to serve as a primer, but anyone who tunes out when Morricone starts talking about how he hid Bach’s name in the notation for Henri Verneuil’s “The Sicilian Clan” can at least enjoy the clips from a deliciously second-rate mob film that features Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, and Lino Ventura.
“Ennio” becomes more hypnotic as it enters its namesake’s most prolific years; shallower as well, to a degree, but the speed at which it starts to fly by ambiently reflects how Morricone composed in a kind of flow state that saw him using other people’s art as a conduit to his own truth. The Taviani brothers — who make a joyful late appearance that ends with them both humming the score Morriconne wrote for their 1974 “Allonsanfàn” — quote Morricone’s self-diagnosis as “a chameleon who is always himself,” and those words ring true as we hear how the movies unlocked his internal metronome in the way that interpolating the classic composers never could. Morricone complains that the music he wrote for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns was below what he could do because he was “a slave to Sergio’s vices,” but those vices gave shape to the “abyss” inside of him.
The nature of that abyss remains a mystery (as far Tornatore is concerned, Morricone was a workaholic who fiercely adored his wife, and there’s no mention of demons), but Morricone was so eager to fill it that he wrote music faster than most people can write a letter, sometimes recording as many as 21 film scores in a single year. As he watched an assembly cut of “1900” for the first time, Morricone began composing the score right in his seat, as if creating a parallel movie in his head.
Tornatore doesn’t put too fine a point on it or push his subject toward a prefab narrative, but the framework of this documentary tends to suggest that Morricone was so manic because he was determined to prove his worth to Petrassi, and that only by doing so did he begin to believe in it — and in his power to be more than mere accompaniment. There’s no greater testament to that than the footage we see from the set of Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” where Robert De Niro steps into a scene as Morricone’s score plays for the actors to hear, as if the music were a part of the air their characters breathed. The notes had always been there, just waiting for Leone to help Morricone see them on the screen, and now they only seem to be growing more resonant with every passing day. Two hundred years is a long time, but watching this documentary span more than half a century in the course of a few hours, well, it doesn’t sound as long as it seems.
Music Box Films will release “Ennio” in theaters on Friday, February 9.
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