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Once upon a Time … there was a great Western film score composer

by Stoker

The first thing you really must do – if it’s still possible – is to book a seat for yourself and your partner or best friend at your local arts cinema to see this film. It’s almost at the end of its short run. It is available on Netflix, but this film deserves to be seen on a big screen with a (really) good sound system and in company with an appreciative audience. Some films – most films, I would argue – are best seen on a big screen in company, although without the popcorn crunchers and the knowledgeable types endlessly explaining just what is going on here and who that person is and that this is a flash back… No explanations are needed when watching this film, so hopefully there’ll be no whispering, though there may be a few tears.

What film?” I hear you ask, now for the fourth time. Ah, sorry. Ennio* – the story of the life and career of Ennio Morricone. Signor Morricone was probably the greatest music composer of the second half of the twentieth century. Like W. A. Mozart, he appealed both to the highbrow taste and to those whose brows sit quite a lot lower. Like Herr Mozart he produced the most amazing volume of music (including four hundred film scores alone) and whenever he could, he conducted them himself, the orchestras and choirs growing ever bigger as his standing grew.

Unlike Wolfgang Amadeus, however, he lived a very long life, from 1928 to 2020, and was married, very happily, to the same woman, Maria, from 1956 until his death, and no breath of scandal or bad behaviour ever sullied his reputation.

He began composing when he was six, and was sent to the Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia in Rome at the age of twelve to learn the trumpet and other musical skills. His father, a professional trumpet player, told him that ability on the trumpet would always feed a family. He passed the initial four-year course within six months. He then studied under another genius, Goffredo Petrassi, and finally left the Conservatorio in 1954 having achieved a Diploma in Composition with a score of 9.5/10, an extraordinary result.

Meanwhile, he had already begun to build his reputation, composing for the radio. In 1959 he wrote his first film score, and from then on, his course was firmly set: to become the greatest film music composer of all times. This was not what Morricone really wanted, though; he wanted to write serious modern classical music, in the style of his mentor Petrassi and, even more so, of August Strindberg. However, that did not pay the bills, so for the first few years of married life he had to work as a trumpeter and bandsman, but by the early 1960s his film music was starting to finance a comfortable lifestyle. He relates in Tomatore’s film how he told Maria in 1960 and again at the beginning of each decade that he would write film scores and for TV for “just ten more years”, then would become a serious composer. Finally, in 2000, he decided, as he put it, to keep quiet on that subject.

The greatest merit of this film is that it’s built around a series of long interviews with the Maestro, sitting in an armchair in his study, recorded just before his death. Morricone was a very private man and had previously said very little about his life and what drove him, but in that chair he reveals all, or at least a great deal. The conversation is interspersed with excerpts from films and a series of interviews with people who knew him well and those he worked with. Probably the thing we miss most is direct input from the film director Sergio Leone, who was in many respects Morricone’s greatest friend, starting from their schooldays together, though Leone’s daughter, Raffaella, is called upon to fill in for her father.

In 1964, Leone asked Morricone to write the music for his forthcoming film, A Fistful of Dollars, giving the maestro a number of suggestions as to how the score should work. However, Morricone refused to take any account of the suggestions, saying that he would turn the job down if there was to be any interference. He took the same attitude with all his subsequent commissions. Leone left him alone but with a very tight budget and improvised instruments.

What emerged from that first collaboration made a lasting impact on the ‘Western’ film genre. After Fistful they worked together on all Leone’s films, and Morricone became the composer to go to for big music for serious films – not just Westerns but such marvels as Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatori) and The Mission (Roland Joffe). The Mission is discussed extensively by Morricone and Joffe in Ennio; it’s a tragic, brilliant film, very much of our times, which, in my opinion, deserves to be re-released.

As Morricone broodingly tell us in Ennio, he became increasingly perplexed as to why in his own mind his film scores should be regarded as any less valuable explorations of humanity than his ‘serious’ pieces. Gradually he became convinced that they were just as important; that to accompany a film was no less meritorious than to play in an orchestra auditorium. That was certainly Leone’s view; when he commissioned a film score from the Maestro, he used to send him the script as soon as he had a good draft of it. Morricone would write the score and Leone would then have the music played while the film was being shot so that the actors and film-making team would understand the mood and the pace that was required.

Morricone began to support and conduct huge orchestral productions of his music, often outdoors or in the largest possible venues. I went to one of a series in the Royal Albert Hall to mark his 80th birthday. He performed eleven encores and seemed as fresh at the end as at the beginning.

He was frequently nominated for an Oscar but seemed fated never to win; the section of the film where Morricone comments on this is extremely funny. In the end, after five nominations and five mostly unfair near misses, he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2007; one gets the feeling that Morricone was not impressed. He finally won for the film score for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2016, at the age of 88. He truly was a man who worked right to the end.

Ennio, it has to be said, is not the greatest film ever made. It’s very long, and some of the interviews drag on or are repetitive. It would be interesting to have more conversations played over the film and music being discussed. If you think this approach doesn’t work well, after you have watched Ennio have another look at Christopher Frayling’s over-track explaining Once Upon A Time in the West, possibly the greatest-ever Western, probably Morricone’s greatest sound track and, to some of us, perhaps even the greatest film ever made. Frayling explains what Leone and Morricone are about: dealing with the concept of honour in a world that has now passed; explaining change and how people both resist it and welcome it; exploring sentimentality, love and the American Dream and how by the end of the 19th century the US nation had reached as far as it could stretch, from then on starting to look inwards.

Morricone lived in extraordinary times – born into fascism; emerging from wartime as an accomplished musician and composer; living through the age of technology from flickering black and white screens to an era when our heads are virtually spinning with the range of choice of media types and media players. Yet, in a rapidly-changing, volatile world, his music accompanies and explains all. He never embraced new technology or changed the way he worked. He wrote by hand in notebooks. He didn’t use a piano or other instrument to work out his pieces; they just came into his head, and he wrote them down. He was a quiet, modest and private man, loving his wife and family, but absolutely sure of his own talent and merits. When you spend these 167 minutes in his company, you’ll learn a great deal about music, the world, and even yourself. Do watch it.

*Ennio, directed by Giuseppe Tomatore, 167 minutes, on cinema release and on Netflix



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