Ennio Morricone: Farewell to the Maestro

Ennio Morricone: Farewell to the Maestro

We lost Ennio Morricone yesterday. The world’s greatest screen composer was 91 years old, which is a good innings by anyone’s estimation, but it still stings when you lose someone who cast a shadow as long as his, and perhaps twice as much in a year as unarguably shitty as this one.

Morricone’s achievements are both legion and well documented, and you don’t need me to lead you by the hand through his C.V.: The Dollars Trilogy, The Untouchables, The Thing, Cinema Paradiso, Days of Heaven… and that’s just the cream of the crop. He was hugely prolific; imdb lists 520 credits as Composer and 344 soundtrack appearances and, given the murky details of his early career (Morricone ghost-composed for better known artists when he was making his bones) those are lowball figures. If you’ve spent any time at all at the movies, odds are good that you’ve heard Morricone.

But like I said, I’m not here for the biographical details. Well, not Morricone’s at least, but I’ll give you some of mine. Way back in the day when the earth was young and VHS gave rise, for good or ill, to a whole generation of screen-savvy consumers and aficionados, Morricone was there when my switch got flipped.

I think there’s a moment in every film freak’s life when they cross the Rubicon. There’s a point where you go from “I like movies” to “It’s called cinema, actually” and while you more often than not become largely insufferable for the next several years (and god help you if you never get over it), that moment is a life changer. It’s like an anatomist cutting through the skin for the first time and seeing how the muscles and skeleton beneath hold the whole thing together. If you’re less gruesome, it’s like the scene in Close Encounters when Roy Neary makes a mountain out of mashed potatoes and muses, “This means something.” It’s that instant where you go beyond surface level appreciation – “This movie rocks!” “This movie sucks!” – to wanting to know how the flick works, and why it was made, and what drove the director, and what else shaped the film, and so on and so on and so on. It’s the moment you plunge down the rabbit hole. Some people who have that moment become filmmakers. Some become critics. Some spend the rest of their lives justifying unfeasibly large home media collections to domestic partners.

For me, although the seeds had been planted very early (I was given a copy of The Seven Samurai when I was six, but that’s a whole ‘nother story), it was 1991 in Mr. Douglas’ Media Studies class in Collie Senior High School.

Now, let me be clear: I fucking hated high school with the fire of a thousand Dresdens, but like many weirdos I found solace in the arts, and English, Media, and Theatre were very much My Jam. I wasn’t a swot – I had a rough enough time of it in high school that I barely graduated – but I had a natural talent for language, narrative, and performance that got me through in this area even when all else was collapsing in a heap.

Anyway, point being: we’re all in Media Studies learning the rudimentaries of film analysis. In a country school at that time a lot of kids picked Media as a blow-off class; you got to watch movies in school, which was always a bonus, and besides, nobody could actually imagine going on to work in the arts, myself included. That was for Other (richer, more cosmopolitan) People; most of the people in this class were going to be coal miners and nurses.

So there we were, sitting in a classroom off the old School Hall that was also used for Theatre Arts (I was basically only happy in that one building) and Mr. Douglas, as fine a teacher as I’ve ever studied under, heeled the latest object of study into the VCR: Roland Joffe’s The Mission.

And like Henry Rollins seeing The Ramones live for the first time, I’ve never recovered.

That’s a lie of memory, of course. It wasn’t like a flash of lightning; it was more of a montage sequence (go to the “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” sequence in School of Rock if you’re still on a Ramones kick). But this was the film where it all came together. Watching Roland Joffe’s superlative story of faith, redemption, and colonialism in the depths of the South American jungle, and listening to Mr. Douglas’ commentary, it all snapped into focus. How script and framing and editing and performance worked to draw out theme and meaning. Script and framing and editing and design and performance…

…and sound. Score.

Obviously this would not have been the first time I heard Morricone’s music because, as I’ve noted, the man’s presence is everywhere in modern cinema, but this was certainly the first time I needed to know who was behind this extraordinary sound.

Early in the film there’s a moment when Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel, venturing into the primordial forest to bring God to the heathens (they don’t need Him, but that’s for another essay), sits down to play his oboe, one quiet, brave, man of peace singing in the wilderness. The local Guaraní warriors approach him. We, the audience, know fear; the Guarani ritually executed the last European missionary to come here. This time, enraptured by Gabriel’s (and Ennio’s) angelic music, they let him live.

It’s one moment in a soaring, extraordinary work, and perhaps the quietest in a score that encompasses towering orchestral constructions as big as gothic cathedrals and choral arrangements fit for the Host but, like the Guarani, I was entranced. And it was one part of the whole package that I finally saw working in concert – script and framing and etcetera and so forth – but Morricone’s score, as it does in so many of the films he contributed to, ties the whole thing together, even more so than the screenplay. Or maybe we need another anatomical analogy: if the script is the skeleton, giving the creature shape and poise, then the score is the blood that animates it.

Over 20 years later I was lucky enough to see Morricone live at the Perth Festival, with a hundred piece orchestra and a hundred voice choir. When they played the selections taken from The Mission, I wept. Last night, having learned of Morricone’s passing, I cued up a live cut of the same music, and I wept again. Not out of sorrow – 91, as noted, is an extraordinarily good innings – but out of sheer gratitude.

Grazie, maestro. Grazie.

Travis Johnson is Australia's most prolific film critic