The talent and influence of Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who died in 2020 aged 91, is undeniable. Synonymous with Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and the instantly-recognizable “wah-wah-wow” theme-tune to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” the extent of his output was phenomenal at over 500 film scores. This 3-hour tribute by Giuseppe Tornatore (of “Cinema Paradiso” fame) feels less like a documentary feature and more like an epic case for his legacy delivered to the arbiters of historical relevance. “Ennio” is compelling when the man himself is speaking, in person and through his music, and a tedious slog when it becomes a carousel of talking heads all proclaiming his genius in hyperbolic terms.
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Morricone has a beautiful presence. An exclusive career interview is woven around the chronological yomp through his life and times. He wears a red button-down top and a gold wedding band; big brown eyes as docile as a cow’s behind trademark bottle-top glasses. He grimaces when recalling old battles with composing, softening at personal memories, such as when he was playing in the army band and his girlfriend Maria ran along behind him. “It was so cute,” he beams. He is so cute!
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Tornatore used Morricone to score every film since 1988’s “Cinema Paradiso,” and the resulting comfort with his subject means gold anecdotes galore. In an inverse of the usual parent vs. child/practical vs. creative ambitions, Ennio wanted to be a doctor. Still, his musician father, Libera, insisted that he study the trumpet instead. The family lived in Rome and didn’t have much money. Libera played the same trumpet for his whole life.
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From penning his first composition aged 6 to entering a conservatory at 12, Morricone is presented on a predestined track with a preternatural gift for composition. One talking-head describes him writing a score as rapidly as writing a letter, while others say he heard music in his head. A teacher at his conservatory, Goffredo Petrassi, loomed large. This mentorship meant that even once the Morricone name was enshrined in Hollywood lore, his aspirations reached the wider world of classical music. There is never the sense that stardom meant all that much, with the invisible hand of Petrassi steering him to conduct concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and develop as a composer.
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Tornatore includes more musical references and commentators than filmic ones, rooting Ennio in the tradition of the classical greats. Bach, Verdi, and Mozart are cited as comparisons for a classical framework that grounded the innovative techniques that gave his music a unique timbre. “Ennio” comes alive when talking about the decision to use a trumpet combined with female voices and a trombone combined with male voices to create harmony, as well as a typewriter as a sound effect. His memory for precise instrumentation is as detailed as if recalling the early milestones of children. His glee is infectious, and seeing an older man burn with youthful enthusiasm for a vocation he’s been practicing for over eight decades gives this documentary a magnetism, even when its lesser elements kick in.
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These lesser elements amount to a lack of discernment and creativity around which interviewees to include. On the most famous side, the endless hype-men include Dario Argento, Joan Baez, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Bruce Springsteen, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Roland Joffé, Barry Levinson, and Quincy Jones. Then follows a procession of silver-haired white Italian musicians queuing up to lay their floral words. The only notable absence is Terrence Malick, who worked with Morricone on his typically poetic 1977 romance drama “Days of Heaven.” In a jaunty and jarring attempt to gloss over this, audio of Malick is played over photographs of the famously media-shy auteur, and we are told two joyous facts: the two played chess and maintained an epistolary relationship.
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“Ennio” heads for the heavens once film clips are dropped in and operatic music floods iconic scenes. Clint scowling and chewing on a cigar in the wide-open desert plains to music that fills the screen with both the drama and the majesty of cinema at its best. When we are shown (as opposed to told by legions of Italians) how integral and powerful a part of 20th-century image-making Ennio was, the film works on a primal level. Ennio is often emotional, recalling how his empathy with characters, such as the struggle of 18th century Spanish Jesuits and the South American tribe in “The Mission,” drove him to agonize over finding the right musical recognition.
Tornatore has gone for the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to making this film; hence there is a mandatory strand detailing Morricone’s always a bridesmaid history with the Academy Awards. This part feels rushed and the decision to choose, out of his five losses, to zoom in on 1986 one to Herbie Hancock’s score for “Round Midnight” feels misjudged and blinkered, as the carousel of talking heads express disapproval over the injustice.
Uneven, overlong, and rammed with gratuitous commentators as it is, Ennio and, therefore, “Ennio” is good enough to clasp cinematic value from what is bad and ugly. If this is indeed a testimony compiled for the grand arbiters in the hope of admitting Ennio Morricone to the pantheon of the musical greats, it makes a persuasive case. [B]
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