Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on January 25, 2017
As a film score junkie, I have a soft place in my heart for that freakish period in the ‘60s and ‘70s when film composers suddenly became music superstars and had regular hits on the Billboard charts. Sure, composers were big before that with guys like Johnny Mercer and the dream team at MGM getting soundtrack releases out there to the public, but it really hit a peak when you regularly had composers like Henry Mancini, Maurice Jarre, André Previn, Elmer Bernstein and John (or Johnny, at first) Williams scoring big hits that people would walk around humming and whistling for months.
Then there’s the man who really helped bring international film scoring into the mainstream: Nino Rota, who had started off writing ballets and operas and entered the world of film music in the ‘40s. He shot to fame via his collaborations with Federico Fellini, a partnership that began with The White Sheik in 1952 but really exploded in 1960 with their worldwide sensation, La Dolce Vita (1960).
The Rota sound is really unlike anything else out there, and it’s impossible to imagine Italian cinema without him. I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s the greatest composer the country produced (it’s pretty clear Ennio Morricone has that honor easily sewn up), but Rota is something really special. There was so much more to him than just Fellini, as astounding as that partnership is. Just take a look at this roster: Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), and John Guillerman’s Death on the Nile (1978), just for starters. There’s a jubilant, quirky and bouncy quality to Rota’s music that grabs you right away, especially in his Italian films; he was certainly capable of scoring big epics, but it’s the more localized stories that really brought out the best in him, and perhaps that’s why he and Fellini were such a good match.
You can sample some of Rota’s finest work around these parts – enough, in fact, to make you a lifelong junkie if you aren’t careful. There are three in particular I’d like to call out, and they’ d make a pretty fine triple feature if you have the time, too. For a nice Rota primer, may I recommend one of his greatest Fellini collaborations, the “Toby Dammit” segment from Spirits of the Dead (1968). Of the three Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in that anthology film, this is the one everybody remembers – and the music is so potent it was even used as recently as a tightrope rehearsal sequence in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk (2015). Our story opens with the arrival of debauched western star Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) at a Rome airport bathed in hellish hues of orange and filled with aggressive throngs of demonic reporters and hangers on. It’s a hallucinatory introduction that manages to sustain itself over the course of the entire story, with a gala awards dinner and fashion show allowing Rota to spin out an intoxicating array of party music that sounds like it’s being beamed in from outer space. There’s also an eerie yet beautiful recurring theme for the devil (“The Demon Child Theme”), represented here by a young girl in white carrying a bouncing ball (and played by multiple actors). What’s fascinating here is how much you can hear Rota laying the groundwork for some of his best work in the 1970s, with elements that would later be developed in Roma (1972) and especially the wonderful, underrated Fellini’s Casanova (1976), both of which would allow the filmmaker and composer to explore their darker, naughtier sides.
One of the first Rota scores I ever got to hear in a movie theater is still among my favorites: René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960), a sexy, sumptuous thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s mystery novel (and first in a terrific series), The Talented Mr. Ripley (later filmed again in 1999 by the late Anthony Minghella). Here his music is brash and aggressive from the outset, as strong and forceful as the blazing sun that fills nearly every frame of the film shot along the Italian coastline. Comprised mainly of horns and woodwinds, it still has that Rota flavor even as it avoids the percolating quirkiness that defines his Fellini films. Alain Delon stars here as the manipulative and (sort of) murderous Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s ultimate antihero, and I don’t think there’s any other music that can be identified so strongly with that great French actor. His piercing eyes are the perfect visual equivalent to Rota’s sparing but powerful musical punches; these are melodies to sweat and scheme by, the perfect thing to play when you’re planning a trip to Europe and hoping for a little danger along the way.
Last up on this little Rota tour is the first Fellini feature made entirely in Technicolor, Juliet of the Spirits (1965). The director claimed he dabbled a bit with LSD before starting the film (and didn’t really care for it), but it’s hardly relevant considering how trippy his previous films were anyway. The use of color here is remarkable as Fellini’s camera slows down to soak in the wide tapestry of hues on display here; much of the film is bathed in near darkness with vibrant costumes and props almost popping out of the screen, and Rota also adjusts his bouncy tempo on occasion to achieve an unearthly atmosphere at times. It’s astonishing how even the musical instruments seem to be in love with the face of Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and muse for some of his best films. Appropriately, she requested that Rota’s theme for La Strada (1954) be played at her funeral in 1993. The film itself barely has a plot and has puzzled many viewers for decades, but ultimately I don’t think the message or the outcome matter as much as the journey. It’s a plunge into a married woman’s psyche, with Rota’s music serving as a kind of inner voice bubbling with pleasures and anxieties beyond what Juliet can articulate through dialogue. It’s a master class in film scoring and proof positive that Rota still belongs in the pantheon of great film composers. I hope you’ll agree and find that these films streaming on the Criterion Channel of Filmstruck can serve as a gateway to a great wealth of cinematic and musical riches.
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