Italian Composers Score Biz

But Hollywood production methods can cause agita

Italo composer Dario Marianelli, Oscar-nommed for his score for Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina,” is indicative of the influence Italians have had on movie music. Marianelli and others are increasingly working outside national confines — sometimes almost exclusively so — picking up the baton from Ennio Morricone in a field where Italy traditionally excels.

To wit: Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster,” the martial arts epic that opened the Berlin Film Festival in February, features music by young Roman composer Stefano Lentini. Gallic megahit “The Intouchables” was scored by Italo composer-pianist (and quasi popstar) Ludovico Einaudi. The soundtrack for recent U.S. pic “Playing for Keeps,” toplining Gerard Butler and helmed by Gabriele Muccino, is by Italy’s Andrea Guerra, who has other Hollywood pics under his belt, including Muccino-helmed hit “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Part of the reason for the migration, naturally, concerns budgets. Former punk rocker Pivio (aka Roberto Pischiutta), who works with longtime creative partner Aldo De Scalzi and has dozens of credits, including Gallic telepic “Dirty Money” for Canal Plus, laments that in Italy, “there is never enough money for more than 20 musicians, unless your name is Morricone.”

It’s a problem that Hollywood coin, of course, can easily resolve. Guerra, who’s worked with, among others, Rob Marshall on “Nine,” says he’s had his biggest, career-defining opportunities with American productions.

But the prominent Italo tunesmith, the son of late poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra, notes that Italy and Hollywood have very different approaches to how the movie music is made.

“One of the first things I get told when I work on a Hollywood production is: ‘Don’t go into European mode,’ ” he jokingly recounts, explaining that composers on U.S. studio pics generally work under a music editor, allowing a composer less freedom. In Italy, the director traditionally works closely with the composer.

In Guerra’s experience, an exception to this norm occurred in making “The Pursuit of Happyness” for Sony Pictures.

“Gabriele’s friendship with Will Smith gave us power to largely control the (music in the) film; but in the studio system, that rarely happens,” he says.

Not all Italo composers see working in the U.S. in limiting terms, however. Italo tunesmith Teho Teardo, whose credits include the pulsating soundtrack for Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” which combines electronic and orchestral music, is looking forward to his first Stateside job, an HBO docudrama about former senator and civil rights activist Harris Wofford, based on Wofford’s book “Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties.”

“I always work from script stage, very closely with the director and the film editor,” he says. And the HBO gig will be no exception.

While Marianelli, born and raised in Pisa, left the Tuscan town for London early in his composing career and has had the best of both worlds, working in Europe on big-budget productions that have included “Jane Eyre,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” and, recently, Dustin Hoffman’s “Quartet,” most have had to choose between the freedom of the European arthouse or the drumbeat of Hollywood paydays.

Nicola Piovani, an Oscar winner in 1999 for his emotive score for Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” made a couple of abortive attempts at Hollywood-style composing, and hasn’t considered a return.

“I can’t adapt to a production system that is so far-removed from the way I am used to working,” says Piovani, who contributes to films all over Europe, especially in France, and recently scored Daniel Cohen’s “The Chef” for Gaumont, starring Jean Reno.

Still, changing production methods, largely due to digital innovations, are affecting the way composers work in general, according to Rome and Brooklyn-based musician Mattia Carratello, who works with cellist Stefano Ratchev. “It isn’t the same process as in the past,” he says.

Digital has reduced budgets for soundtracks, says Carratello, and is generally causing movie music to become more computer-generated and less instrumental, at least in Italy.

Ratchev & Carratello have adapted to the technology with a light mix of orchestral and electronic sounds that feature plenty of percussion and pizzicato. Having scored Gianni Di Gregorio’s comedies “Mid-August Lunch” and “The Salt of Life,” among Italy’s biggest exports of the past few years, the pair are hoping to break out internationally.

While Teardo laments what he sees as the limits of the Italo scene, he adds that because music has no linguistic barriers, other opportunities abound. For instance, he and many Italo musicians have global fan bases thanks to their recordings. Some have been able to use these as a calling card for the film biz.

Einaudi, whose atmospheric 2009 album “Nightbook” sold 750,000 copies worldwide, started scoring movies in the U.K. and France “because the directors heard my music either on the radio or on iTunes,” he says. The Turin-born composer, who worked with Shane Meadows on “This Is England” and with helmers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano on “Intouchables,” is now embarking on a world tour for his new CD “In a Time Lapse.”

Lentini, too, got sampled thanks to his recorded work. “The Grandmaster’s” Wong came across a CD with Lentini’s solemn “Stabat Mater” sung in Latin; “Stabat” plays in “Grandmaster” along with two Morricone themes. It’s a start that could lead to further collaboration between the composer and the Hong Kong auteur.

“We talked about it in Berlin, and of course I’d love to (work with him),” says Lentini, whose previous pics include anti-Silvio Berlusconi drama “Shooting Silvio” by Berardo Carboni.

It’s clear that many in this music-rich nation see the biz as a confirmation of sorts. And many, like Guerra, aspire to success on the scale of Marianelli, whose score for “Karenina” featured 60 London musicians and himself at the piano.

“Dario has had the good fortune to be able to stay European thanks to working with Joe Wright,” Guerra says. “His work is very melodic and orchestral. And in London he’s in the perfect spot.” n

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