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Ennio Morricone – Der Maestro / Ennio – The Maestro

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore (Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Japan). Year of Release: 2021

A large house in which we see an elderly man wandering around. He lies down and does some exercises. When he’s done with that, he starts some air composing. In the background, the tables teem with papers, and, well, Stuff. Born in 1928, Ennio Morricone was in his nineties when much of this film was made (he subsequently died in 2020) and still looks exceedingly agile.

Morricone did not have a typical childhood. He wanted to become a doctor, but his father, who was a member of a travelling band, put moral pressure on so that he joined a Conservatory and learned to play the trumpet, then composition. As a teenager, he joined his father’s band, and also combined his classical studies with trying to make more experimental music. I hadn’t noticed it before, but there is an awful lot of trumpet playing in the scores of Morricone’s films.

Originally an arranger for pop songs and tv shows, Morricone got his big break in international cinema with the Spaghetti Westerns which he made with Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. The number of great films – with equally great scores – that we see here is breathtaking. To name a few there are: Battle of Algiers, 1900, Days of Heaven, Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, plus a whole load of Italian films directed by the likes of Dario Argento and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Morricone also scored films which worked less well for me as films (The Untouchables, Cinema Paradiso, The Hateful Eight), but watching clips here you can see just how much your emotions are – often unthinkingly – affected by the score. The effect can be at times sentimental, but more often strengthens the film. At one stage I lost track about who said what about which film, but I think it’s Once Upon a Time in America which someone calls unthinkable without Morricone’s score.

Towards the end, we hear about Morricone’s different experiences at the Oscars. In 1987, everyone around Morricone was certain that he was nailed on to win the Oscar for the soundtrack to the Mission – before losing out to Herbie Hancock for Round Midnight. In a rare show of bitterness, Morricone argues that he lost out due to a category error – saying that because Hancock’s score consisted mainly of jazz standards, it should have been up for a different award.

Archive footage taken before a later ceremony show a much more sanguine Morricone expecting defeat. This time he’s right, although he did win an honorary Oscar in 2007. The film’s narrator says that it seemed that that was that, until his 2016 Oscar for The Hateful Eight showed that he still had it in him. Well, perhaps. For me, this success, like Martin Scorcese’s for The Departed, is more down to Academy voters admitting they got it wrong in the past, but I don’t begrudge him his win.

The best of Morricone’s work seems to have been in the 1960s to the 1980s, when created the music behind many revolutionary films. Rather than spending roughly the same time on each of his decades, I would have preferred it if the film had spent extra time looking at films like Battle of Algiers or 1900 (not to mention the Westerns), and trying to tease out exactly what it was that Morricone did to make these films great. This is difficult to achieve in the format chosen.

Much as I found the film fascinating, I repeatedly felt myself wanting it to be something else entirely. At nearly 3 hours long, it is really too long for a cinema film, and yet for all the detail, much of the information felt too superficial. We’ve barely touched the surface of one great film until we’re rushing on to the next. Morricone did just too much (the film reckons he wrote 21 film scores in 1969 alone) for this format to show anything in sufficient detail.

So, maybe a tv series would have been able to tell us more, and maybe we could have done with a little more analysis. Many incisive points are made about Morricone’s work, not least by fellow-composer Hans Zimmer, but this is usually while discussing individual films. What is sometimes lacking is how their comments about Morricone’s greatness manifested themselves in individual films. We could hear more about his specific contribution.

We also hear some stories several times, as Morricone’s experience on different films often repeated what he’d done before. So, there’s the story when a director contacts Morricone about a film, and he refuses point blank to even think about it. A week later, he rings the director back and hums a motif which would fit the film perfectly. Or the one where a director gives detailed instructions about what the film should sound like. Morricone nods benignly, then just does his own thing.

So, I might have preferred a different film, but the one that I saw was perfectly serviceable. There could be an even more fascinating film about Morricone waiting to be made, but until then we have this, a fair tribute to a man who has written the scores for over 500 films, not to mention his symphony written after 9/11 and any number of tours with orchestra and choir. This is an awesome body of work, and the footage that we see show the concerts were very impressive.

Yes, some of the talking heads seem to have been chosen more for their fame than the depth of what they had to day (I’m always a sucker for Bruce Springsteen, but did we really need James Hetfield from Metallica?) Yes, some clips of rappers “doing” Morricone to show how he is still speaking to the kids, did feel a little embarrassingly self-indulgent. But this is still a documentary which, despite its excessive length, has you wanting to go and find out more.

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