By Jeremy Carr.

A reverent and vivid film about a man whose music has become inseparable from the movies he scored…”

With Ennio, his 2021 documentary about legendary composer Ennio Morricone (and now in theatrical release in the U.S.), director Giuseppe Tornatore has fashioned one of the most compelling and inspiring film-related profiles in recent memory, if not of all time. Interviewing an assembly of Morricone friends, collaborators, and admirers, seamlessly blended with decades of audio samplings, archival footage, and film excerpts, Ennio is a worthy testament to Morricone’s enduring legacy and his range of influence. It is a reverent and vivid film about a man whose music has become inseparable from the movies he scored and, perhaps even more noteworthy, about the movies that would lose much of their potency without Morricone’s contributions.

Film Forum on X: "The legendary late composer Ennio Morricone was born on  this day in 1918. On February 9, we will premiere ENNIO by Giuseppe  Tornatore (CINEMA PARADISO), a documentary that

Adopting a largely chronological structure, Tornatore begins Ennio with what must be a rare reversal in parental preference, as Morricone tells of how his father, a musician, steered his son away from being a doctor and instead pushed him toward the life of an artist. The Morricone family’s livelihood was dependent on the profits of performance and, as such, young Ennio was a prodigy by necessity. His origins were humble to say the least, and in the interviews with the composer just before his death in 2020, he candidly discusses his early struggles, inspirations, and the gradual course of his burgeoning career. This included working in assorted orchestras, joining the Italian military’s band, and an experimentation with “traumatic sounds,” in some cases obtained by using cans, bathtubs filled with water, and the click-clack of a typewriter to compliment his compositions. Then, after his first credit on a film, with 1961’s The Fascist, and following more than a dozen other film scores, Morricone began his groundbreaking association with former schoolmate Sergio Leone. The music Morricone brought to Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)—was viewed at the time (or, rather, heard at the time) as what is variously described in Ennio as “a new language” and a “culture shock.”

In addition to these compositions, which remain among Morricone’s most iconic, he was also working with filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marco Bellocchio, and Bernardo Bertolucci, and when put into Tornatore’s carefully coordinated contextual framework, the sheer diversity of Morricone’s work, even at this relatively preliminary stage, is as stunning as his unbridled productivity. What is more, as Ennio demonstrates—graced as it is by a two-hour and thirty-six-minute runtime—this was just the beginning. In the present-day conversations with Morricone, lovingly filmed by Tornatore and cinematographers Giancarlo Leggeri and Fabio Zamarion, he recalls with admirable veracity the many features he scored, and his memory when mimicking the note-by-note refrains is impressive and charming. From there, hearing the completed arrangements with their accompanying filmic images conveys the might of Morricone’s music and the indelible imprint left upon so many great movies, while his detailed accounts of what he achieved and how only heighten the appreciation. And the complementary clips of live, full orchestra performances are absolutely stirring.

Morricone considers the relationships formed with various filmmakers through the years and explains how each one was not only different than the next, but how each unique alliance fostered an equally unique product.”

In addition to inserting personal digressions, like a brief but touching interlude about Morricone’s wife and her stalwart role in his life and career, Tornatore, who had worked with Morricone often, convenes numerous other individuals to attest to Morricone’s outstanding relevance, including, among the more famous, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Dario Argento, Quincy Jones, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Lina Wertmüller, Pat Metheny, and James Hetfield. While Ennio features a striking array of praiseful testimony, from those noted and others, all proclaiming their admiration for the prodigious composer, it is perhaps the directors who speak most pointedly and joyfully, as they know their films would not be what they are without Morricone’s vital involvement. To that end, Morricone considers the relationships formed with various filmmakers through the years and explains how each one was not only different than the next, but how each unique alliance fostered an equally unique product. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though, as Oliver Stone recalls his somewhat contentious collaboration with Morricone on 1997’s U Turn and Morricone himself speaks of a regretful period where he was deprived of potentially scoring Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), thanks to some Sergio Leone shenanigans. Morricone’s progressive output—described in Ennio as both remarkably varied and routinely consistent—leads some, like fellow composers John Williams and Hans Zimmer, to speak of their colleague as something of a musical auteur, where a single melodic sample or even just an opening note could immediately signal its creator.   

Starting in the 1980s and in the years thereafter, Morricone states how he often teased the idea of stepping away from scoring films, which he thankfully avoided. Subsequent scores for The Mission (1986), The Untouchables (1987), and Tornatore’s own Cinema Paradiso (1988) are all highlighted in Ennio as exemplary works that were just as intoxicating as anything that came before. Rightly or wrongly, the Academy Awards are also positioned as a benchmark of approval, and Morricone was nominated five times, beginning with 1979’s Days of Heaven, before finally receiving the award for 2015’s The Hateful Eight, eight years after being awarded an honorary Oscar for his lifetime contributions. With more than 500 scores to his credit, counting feature films, videos, and television work, Ennio obviously leaves out much of Morricone’s production, but Tornatore judiciously marshals and examines most of his key efforts. The result is a profile of astonishing artistry and variety, as well as a demonstration of a creator’s continual quest for innovation and their tremendous cultural impact.

A fair amount of Ennio is also devoted to Morricone’s early experiences studying music with his mentor Goffredo Petrassi, who, like others early and even later in Morricone’s career, looked down on his decision to compose for the cinema. Morricone speaks of the resentment and constant conflict between—and the eventual merger of—“absolute music” and “film music.” As if the matter wasn’t settled before, Ennio confirms that Morricone’s direction was indeed correct, and his supposedly unsuitable “film music” remains among the most transcendent in the history of the medium. The best of what he achieved is endlessly evocative and reveals an unparalleled variability and a profound influence across contemporary musical genres, all of which is affirmed throughout Ennio. It’s unlikely that most going into this film knew the name of Petrassi or the other detractors, nor will many remember them afterwards, but before Ennio, after, and for all time, the world will remember Ennio Morricone.

Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and Kubrick and Control from Liverpool University Press a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretationfrom Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

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