Ennio (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

I became an instant fan of Ennio Morricone after watching dance troupe Pan’s People performing on BBC TV’s weekly Top of the Pops to Hugo Montenegro’s version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it topped the singles charts in Britain in 1968. Sure, there had been successful theme songs in the charts before like Shirley Bassey’s rendering of Goldfinger, but never a pure instrumental and not a wailing guitar. This is quite simply an extraordinary documentary, and although it comes with an indulgence of anecdotes, what is considerably more compelling is the concentration, in accessible fashion, on the artist’s compositional skills. I could have watched four hours of this, never mind that clocking in at 156 minutes it’s already on the lengthy side for a documentary.

Morricone should never have been a film composer or a composer of any kind. He was too poor. His father was a trumpet-player and Morricone only took up music, designated instrument the trumpet, because his father believed a good trumpet player would always make a living and provide for his family. He was not a good trumpet player. At least, not at the start. Given that once orchestras and dance bands went out of favor, trumpet playing would have been a precarious existence, it was lucky his father’s insisted he also study harmony and composition. He won a place at a conservatoire, where the pupils, all except him, were the sons and daughters of the wealthy elite. And a conservatoire in those days was academically inclined, intending to produce classical composers and players, not people who would work as arrangers and composers of pop songs or commit the unpardonable sin of writing for the movies.

Morricone, always prolific, started working as an arranger of pop tunes for the RCA label in Italy and then for RAI, the Italian state television. But he was also an innovator and many of his songs began with a distinctive sound rather than the music being merely a backdrop to the song. He founded an experimental music group, making music out of anything but a musical instrument. You can see the benefits of that inquiring mind from the first 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), for me his compositional masterpiece and my favorite western.

When he started working for Sergio Leone, he realized they had once been classmates. Leone came to him because Morricone had already written music for Italian westerns. Of course, the collaboration became legendary. As you will be aware, Leone liked the music recorded before filming began and played it during filming. While an interesting approach, I always thought it odd, until I witnessed, here, Robert De Niro making an entrance in one scene of Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

While his themes were often complex, he had a genius for catching the ear of the listener. Many scenes showed Morricone with voice and fingers tapping out a theme you will instantly recognize because all his best work was instantly recognizable. Although an extremely shy person, he was not above walking out – or threatening to do so – if a film was not going according to plan, if a director insisted on making a change or incorporating other material. Nor, for such a genius, was he full of self-confidence. Eventually, he relied on his wife as a listening board to decide if his work was any good. For what he called the “triumphant” scene from The Untouchables (1987), where cops brandishing shotguns prompted by Sean Connery burst in on bootleggers, he supplied nine ideas for director Brian De Palma, who proceeded to use the one Morricone considered the weakest. Other times, he was the one suddenly requiring an extra piece of work, calling upon Joan Baez to supply lyrics at the last minute to his theme for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) that became the memorable “Here’s To You.”

One of the most enjoyable elements of the movie is seeing concert renditions of his themes, “Here’s To You” with a massive choral ensemble making the hairs on the back of your head stand on end. You could probably make a case for Morricone reinventing the chorus, paving the way for such practitioners as Hans Zimmer. Until then, there was many a heavenly chorus, but Morricone found better use for a chorus. And you could also argue that he influenced the likes of Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 1999) in using female opera singers to introduce a completely new sound to movies. 

One of Morricone’s stated aims was to use music to bring something else out of a scene, not to merely provide a relevant sound. So for the death of Sean Connery in The Untouchables or the baby carriage scene his music goes completely against what you are watching but nonetheless adds a deeper understanding. We also see how he folds different themes into the one piece of music.

There are a number of very moving sequences, when Morricone, for example recalls his father – he would not use a trumpet in his compositions until his father died – or when he explains his hurt at being made to feel an outcast by his classical peers, and there is one extraordinary moment when one of those who has disdained him writes a letter asking forgiveness for having so under-rated his work. And certainly there is clear petulance at being passed over for the Oscar for The Mission (1986), a piece of work that director Roland Joffe said made the movie a completely different experience. Morricone complained that half the music that won Herbie Hancock the Oscar for Round Midnight (1986) was actually old, rather than new, music.

My favorite anecdote is how Gillo Pontecorvo, hearing heard a piece of music Morricone had composed for The Year of the Cannibals (1970) promptly stole it for his own Queimade/Burn (1969) before settling, after an argumemt, for a similar piece. Actors, composers and directors in the anecdote queue include Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, 2015) , Clint Eastwood, Terence Malick (Days of Heaven, 1978), Dario Argento (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971), John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Oliver Stone (U Turn, 1997) Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket, 1965) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900, 1976).

Morricone’s film music changed over the decades. Following the westerns were giallos, marked by dissonance rather than melody, then Hollywood came calling. I hadn’t quite realized what an audience Morricone commanded – over 70 million albums sold. He had hit singles In Italy –  A Fistful of Dollars ranked fourth in the charts, For a Few Dollars one place below, “Here’s To You” also fourth. In Britain, “Chi Mai” reached the second spot; in France “Man with Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West went to number one, as did “Chi Mai” while “Here’s To You” was at number two. And, of course, his music has been adopted by a host of rock bands, most notably Bruce Springsteen and Metallica.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, who has a special place in the Morricone catalog thanks to Cinema Paradiso (1988), has produced a magnificent tribute to the genius. In my half century of regular cinema going, there are four composers I rank above all the rest, John Barry, John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone, but of them all, the latter is the number one for not just his enormous output – 500 scores including 29 in one year – and his wide range of melodies, but because they are so many memorable pieces. Once Upon a Time in the West is never off my CD player and especially gets worn out in the car. For sheer enjoyment this is an undeniable five-star treat. 

I am sure this will end being streamed somewhere but I urge you to try and catch it at the cinema, the effect will be lost on the small screen of the massed choruses or Morricone conducting in vast amphitheaters.

Gladiator (2000) *****

As well as being first in the queue to see The Gladiator on original release over two decades ago and enjoying countless viewings since on DVD and television, the chance to see a big-screen revival (as part of this week’s cinematic triple bill) was not to be missed. There’s always some worry in going back to see a movie you adored that time will have caught up with it or that the big screen will magnify flaws. Instead, this was a pure blast, one of the greatest epics of all time and definitely one of the most brilliant scores.

I always feel kind of sorry for people who’ve only see this kind of picture on a small screen – no matter how big your television it comes nowhere near the cinematic experience. I’m not even sure why it was showing on the big screen – the 20th anniversary has passed so maybe the draw was the upcoming British Father’s Day.

If you’re quick, you will be able to see it until June 17 at the Showcase cinema chain in the U.K. This is a new 4K print. It may run longer if it picks up sufficient demand.

Director Ridley Scott was in something of a career lull after the highs of Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) and his previous historical adventures – The Duellists (1977) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – had been box office duds, so this was a considerable big-budget gamble for Dreamworks and Universal.

Few historical epics begin with action. Directors tended to want to build up the various characters before any battle got under way. But apart from a few seconds of an idyllic pastoral setting establishing how much Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) wants to get back to his Spanish farm, we are immediately, with foot-tapping music by Hans Zimmer, into one of the best battles ever filmed, not just for the tactical detail, and the sense of danger – an emissary is returned missing his head – but the ferocity of the action.

Backgrounding this is politics. Dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) distrusts his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and want to make Maximus the power in Rome. The reaction of Commodus is to smother his father and murder his rival. Maximus escapes but ends up a slave in a gladiator camp in North Africa and eventually returns to Rome plotting revenge.

Into the mix comes Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) who had romantic yearnings for Maximus in the distant past and various senators plotting to remove Commodus from office. The story basically shifts from dramatic action in the arena to outside intrigue with Maximus being seen as a man who could potentially unseat the emperor.

But Ridley Scott has such a fine eye for everything, genuine locations mix in brilliantly with CGI, the action sequences are astonishing, and emotions are kept at a peak. Even when the main narrative pauses here and there to allow philosophic and patriotic speeches they are so deftly written they often amount to the best pieces of dialogue in the picture.

Few movies have as many memorable lines. Sample: “what we do in life echoes in eternity;” “death smiles at us all, all we can do is smile back;” “people should know when they are conquered;” “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, I will have my vengeance in this life or the next;” the “little bee” sequence;  and the lines that ended up as taglines on the advertising posters” a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an emperor.”

While he could easily have let the action speak for itself and who would not have welcomed more battles with Roman foes or more combat in the arena – and many other movies with a character in a similar predicament have succumbed to that temptation – Scott ensures that the tensions between the characters are never lost. So Commodus is driven both by wishing to please his father and desiring an incestuous relationship with his sister. Lucilla is torn between protecting her son (Spencer Treat Clark), her growing attraction to Maximus and trying to keep her brother at bay while plotting against him. Maximus, who has no head for politics, finds himself involved in intrigue as a way of gaining revenge on Commodus.   

Nor does Scott get bogged down with too much exposition or the intricacies of character as has often been the downfall of epics. The story has been whittled down to essential conflict.

It’s hard to pick a winner from the various action scenes – the opening clash in the forests of Germania with snow beginning to fall; the first gladiatorial combat where Maximus takes control; a small band of gladiators fighting what seems a losing battle against chariots; Maximus being unexpectedly attacked by tigers in the arena; or his climactic fight with Commodus.

And there are substantial cameos for British stars – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings – who have lost their box office luster but not their acting ability. Connie Nielsen was a revelation.

Russell Crowe became instant superstar with his majestic portrayal. His name had already been on the lips of Oscar voters, having been nominated the previous year for The Insider (1999), but he took the Best Actor Oscar here. Although the film was named Best Picture Ridley Scott lost out – unfairly I felt – in the Best Director category to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. (How do the two films compare now, I wonder). Joaquin Phoenix and Hans Zimmer were also nominated and the movie also picked up nominations for cinematography and screenplay (David Franzoni, William Nicolson and John Logan.) All told it won five Oscars and seven nominations.

This was the climax to my cinematic triple bill this week and since it also included Nobody and The Father, it could well turn out to be one of the best days I have ever spent at the cinema.

CATCH-UP: I reviewed The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) a while back and if you compare both pictures you can clearly see how much Ridley Scott owes a debt to the previous film.  

There’s a company called Park Circus – http://www.parkcircus.com – which has the rights to show on the big screen virtually all the old movies made by Hollywood studios and it’s worth checking out whether this might be coming your way soon.

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