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Ennio review – definitive portrait of a true musical genius

Giuseppe Tornatore helms a loving, exhaustive look at his former collaborator Ennio Morricone, arguably cinema's greatest composer

Few film composers could be said to have left such an indelible mark on the medium of cinema than the Italian maestro Ennio Morricone, the subject of this inspired, exhaustive documentary by Giuseppe Tornatore, whose own 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso was itself gifted with Morricone's miraculous touch. When Morricone died in 2020 at age 91, he left behind some of the greatest film scores ever written, the majority of which transcended the notion of mere “background music” and thrived as singular works in their own right.

This massive, sprawling portrait finds Tornatore moving chronologically through Morricone's extensive career, from his time as a student at the Saint Cecilia Conservatory, as a pop arranger for RCA, through his groundbreaking work on Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, all the way to his belated Oscar win for The Hateful Eight in 2016. To tackle this vast life, Tornatore enlists the aid of a hundred or so talking heads, all eager to sing the maestro's praises, including Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, and Bruce Springsteen, alongside a plethora of Morricone's Italian collaborators, devotees, and contemporaries, blending them with carefully chosen archive footage.

Of course, we know Morricone's music (and there is an enormous amount to indulge in here), yet I was struck by a strange thought moments before watching this film: despite my own long-held obsession with Morricone's music, I knew very little about him as a person – a fate not uncommon for film composers. We tend to obsessively ply directors and actors about their methods, thoughts, and inspirations, while somebody like Morricone is left as an enigma. Is it simply because we don't understand how to talk about musical scores? Or that we reckon the music speaks for itself? For somebody who has produced more than 500 musical scores, what do we really know about the man?

It is apt, then, that Tornatore hinges his film around a comprehensive interview with the maestro himself, conducted a few years before his death. Where the majority of music documentaries tend to avoid academic discussions about the form, this one goes deeper than you'd expect into the compositions themselves – not only famous scores like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but the maestro's lesser known works, all the time guiding us through the innovations and musical subversions (much to the horror of his former teachers, who spent years in denial before admitting Morricone was doing great work). A generous, egoless subject, Morricone can seemingly recall every piece of music he's ever written with perfect clarity, not to mention where he was, who was there, and how certain directors reacted when he first played them his themes (a common thread is that directors who go against his instincts turn out to be wrong).

The fascinating revelations come thick and fast. We discover that Morricone never had much for a taste for music and had his heart set on a career in medicine. That for decades his position as a film composer left him feeling guilty about abandoning the purer musical forms. That he hates some of his best scores (The Untouchables). That he loathes “melody” – a reveal that's considered particularly shocking when divulged to the other interviewees. That he can write an entire score in his head without even sitting down at a piano. And that he's something of a chess wiz, a seemingly unconnected reveal that makes more sense the longer you think about it.

We're also left wondering how successful some of the movies mentioned here – The Mission, Cinema Paradiso – might have been without Morricone's scores to push them onto a higher plain. Ennio makes a solid case for Morricone as co-director of the works he provided the scores for – it was often the maestro who located a film's emotional core and brought it to the forefront with his music (there's a reason Leone felt he couldn't make a picture without Morricone at his side). The convincing case made by Ennio is that he set the standard for what we think of as “film music” today. On this evidence, it's hard to disagree.

There is a sense that Tornatore, believing – and perhaps not incorrectly – that he was creating the definitive film about his former friend and collaborator, wished to leave no stone unturned; for fans this will probably feel like a treasure trove, though more casual viewers might balk at the 156 minute runtime. Yet thanks to quick cutting and steady pacing – props to editor Massimo Quaglia, who must have contended with hundreds of hours of footage – the whole thing flies by in no time at all – the fastest, longest documentary I've seen in years. Ultimately, the length feels justified: for all his genius, there's always been a sense that Morricone has never been given his proper due (a mere two Oscar wins still seems like an oversight) and Tornatore isn't taking any chances. Of course, two and a half hours only touches the tip of a very large iceberg, and one could spend an entire lifetime dipping into the well of Morricone's eclectic scores without ever reaching to the bottom.

Alternately described in Ennio as “timid,” “peculiar” and “enigmatic,” we're perhaps left with the feeling that Morricone, a natural introvert with no desire for fame, was an elusive presence by design. What we do see, though, is a man who, each and every time he put pen to paper, went in search of something truthful. “A score must be meaningful itself in order to provide a good service to the film to which it is applied,” he explains towards the end, a perfect summation of what makes his work special. One of my biggest regrets is that I never saw Morricone in concert when he came to London in 2018. This passionate, enlightening chronicle goes some way to easing the blow.

Ennio is released in UK cinemas and streaming platforms from 22 April.

Where to watch

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