Nino Rota’s soundtrack for Federico Fellini’s 1976 film “Il Casanova,” which is getting a re-release via Italian record label CAM Sugar, has been a favorite of Alexandre Desplat’s ever since the Oscar-winning French composer first listened to it at 15 years old.
The magnificently staged film stars Donald Sutherland as the legendary 18th-century Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova, who sought wealthy patrons and sexual encounters as he traveled from Venice to Paris, London, Germany, Rome and Austria, where he makes love to a mechanical doll.
The 27 remastered tracks on Rota’s “Casanova” score are being re-released by CAM Sugar in collaboration with Decca Records on Feb. 10, both digitally and on vinyl. They feature compositions on the edge of classical and electronic music, making use of a wide range of instruments including harpsichord, vibraphone and electric piano.
Rota, who scored most of Fellini’s films, including “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2,” really ventures into experimental territory in “Casanova.” Says Desplat: “I feel like Fellini might have told him, ‘Just go crazy!'”
From Paris, where he is composing the score for Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” Desplat spoke to Variety about his love for Rota — especially his work on “Casanova,” which he considers the Italian maestro’s “most incredible” score.
Simply put, why do you love Rota’s “Casanova” score so much?
Well, of all the Italian composers, Nino Rota has been my idol. Of course, I have a lot of respect for Ennio Morricone, for Riz Ortolani, Nicola Piovani and many others. But Nino Rota, like Morricone, had a dimension of poetry mixed with invention, and an elegance and restrained voice that is unique and speaks to me a lot.
Now, if we go to “Casanova,” of course we have to speak about the film. When we look at the film, the music is mostly diegetic, which means it’s integral to the film. The music is completely part of the storyline, and of the images that Fellini gives us of “Casanova.” So that’s the first thing, which is crucial. Wherever “Casanova” goes, there is music. And his way of making love is with music and with his mechanical bird.
How does “Casanova” stand out among the rest of Rota’s scores?
I would say it’s free. It’s his most incredible score. I feel like Fellini might have told him, “Just go crazy. Just do whatever you want to try. Just bring us into the world of ‘Casanova,’ of this lover that goes around the world, with these incredible scenes of love and making love, and these old rundown castles, these duchesses and marquises.”
Of course the use of instruments from different eras keeps it on the edge between classical and electronic music, making it really esoteric, sometimes even psychedelic.
Yes, the instrumentation plays a very important role in the film. The mix of electric instruments, like the electric piano, the electric bass and, at the same time, the glass harmonica and the castrati. It’s such a mix of sounds of that time [the 18th century] and of the present time, when the score was written in 1976. So it is an intelligent, brilliant combination of sounds. And it’s always the right sound for the right motif. There are these crazy scenes with the organs. These huge rooms with several organs, and these players banging on the keyboard and the organ. It’s just out there. I don’t know any other film of that brilliance with music.
Do you remember your feelings when you first came across the film and its music? Is this a soundtrack that has stuck with you throughout your career?
I think I heard the soundtrack before watching the film, because I was already collecting soundtracks when I was 15. And I had many of Nino Rota’s scores, already at that age. So the music came first. And when I watched the film, I was just amazed by Fellini’s world of imagination. That kind of poetry, of surrealism, which is unique. And it stayed with me from the moment I saw the film. It’s stayed with me since.
What struck you in particular when you saw the film?
It was interesting to hear the music in context, which I hadn’t had the opportunity [to do] before watching the film. And to discover how many variations of the themes Rota could invent, and re-orchestrations and new, different arrangements. And the transcriptions that he could do from his own motifs or melodies. It has such an impact on my work to this day, that I always try as much as I can when I write a score to use the motifs, distort them, reuse them with different sounds. And I always try to push myself as close as I can to the genius of that score, which is [something] so high to aim for.
Is there one film in particular that you have scored for which you’ve drawn inspiration from Rota’s “Casanova” score?
There are sounds that I’ve used a lot. The glockenspiel, the celesta, the glass harmonica, the piano, the fender piano, the electric bass. In “Shape of Water,” the opening sequence is a fender piano doing a little arpeggio motif, and everything around that. I’m talking years after writing the score. But I guess there must be something there that brings us back to “Casanova.”