When one has composed 300+ film scores and about 500 works, self-cannibalism becomes inevitable. No shame here. Bach, Vivaldi, Brahms and most every important composer, at some time, borrow from their past successes. And so have the great film composers. Ennio Morricone is perhaps the most prolific film (and TV) composer of all time, and therefore I am probably going to seem ungrateful in greeting this CD with less than violent enthusiasm. I have been collecting Morricone since the early '70s, and at one time was guilty of spending lunch money on his Italian imports - not because they sounded better than domestic releases, but simply because most of the composer's amazing output was never released by North American labels. Perhaps because of this nearly thirty year acquaintance, and perhaps, too, because one of my favourite Morricone scores is 1900 (the 1975 Bernardo Bertolucci epic, not this new flick), hope ascended at the prospect of hearing this new work (even after I realized the CD had nothing to do with Bertolucci's film).
Hence the double disappointment of Legend. While it is recognizably Morricone, it is neither remarkable in itself, nor a patch on the Bertolucci score (which I still haven't seen on CD in Toronto stores). A few years ago Morricone scored perhaps his biggest popular success of the decade with the music for Giuseppe Tornatore's huge hit Cinema Paradiso. While his music for that picture was appropriately low key and nostalgic, I have never considered it prime Ennio. Legend taps the same nostalgic vein, but with the difference that its subject - a musical duel between the principal character and Jelly Roll Morton - has virtually made essential a smattering of ragtime over the prevailing Morricone melancholia. Not a comfortable mix, at least when divorced from the images (I haven't seen the film). While Morricone gets in some tasty straight jazz licks (e.g. the Madness cues), the background score is an uneasy amalgam of familiar elements: the mournful string soloist (cut 2, compare Moses the Lawgiver), the moody harmonica (Once Upon a Time in the West), the slow-shifting matte of divided strings, the jarring juxtapositions (in Legend's cue called Child, a sprightly flute theme is spoiled by an intentional discord from the piano). In the past, Morricone has achieved some of his most memorable effects and dramatic denouements with ingenious juxtaposition (e.g. the combination of trumpet with distorted, reverberant harmonica and electric guitar in the showdown of Once Upon a Time in the West), but here there is little dramatic contrast to sustain interest for an hour. The familiar Morricone cantilena has "jazzy" sax and horn figures superimposed, but the effect is neither organic nor virtuosic. The main theme is tossed back and forth between solo winds, yet fails to find its wings. One of the variations is taken up by muted trumpet (less Miles Davis than Herb Alpert) and, lamentably, the lethargic mood descends further into listlessness. Even the snippets from Jelly Roll and Joplin fail to get into high rev.
Lesser Morricone is still worth hearing. But I will not return to The Legend of 1900 often. Most surprising of all in this generally self-referential score is that one new element gives evidence that Morricone is borrowing from his inferiors. The main title (which shows up at the end as the song Lost Boys Calling, lyrics and vocal by Pink Floyd's Roger Waters) and especially The Legend of the Pianist are infected with the synthetic "uplift" which is the peculiar province of contemporary Hollywood films of the "message" type (Lee Holdridge and James Horner are specialists, but the club is huge). This virus, I allowed myself to hope, could have been contained on this side of the Atlantic