He’s Fellini’s musical muse, the Corleone family’s classically chromatic consigliere, and the potent musical potion for two star-crossed lovers. But there’s more to Nino Rota‘s music than wine-soaked mandolins and Fellini-esque oom pah pah.
Part of Rota’s charm is the dated quality of his Fellini scores. With their ’60s instrumentation and vocals, the music instantly captures an influential period in Italian cinema. Rota’s classical training combined with his penchant gift for melody gives his music grandeur and gravitas that is occasionally absent from other composers forced to conform to the style of American filmmaking. This is music that is not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve.
Among film music fans, Rota is seldom ranked among the top-tier composers. I don’t know if it’s a Hollywood bias or if he truly doesn’t belong there. That argument is up for debate. But there is no denying Rota’s influence on international film music and Italian cinema in particular. And most composers would kill for just one Fellini or GODFATHER in their musical canon.
9. LA STRADA (1954)
Fellini’s tragic story of traveling entertainer Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) and the waif Gelsomina (Giuletta Masina) he buys and beats is embodied in Rota’s heartbreaking main theme. The circus atmosphere of the music (a prevalent feature of the Fellini/Rota collaboration) is offset by the pervading air of sadness that hangs over the score.
8. AMARCORD (1973)
Fellini’s loving, nostalgic look at his hometown is tinged with a rose-colored, larger-than-life aspect that Rota perfectly captures in the many moods of his score. Anchored by its sweet main theme, Rota’s music delineates the lives and loves of the citizens of the small Italian town. If LA STRADA captured the poignant humanity of Fellini’s vision, AMARCORD gives it vibrant, carefree life.
7. DEATH ON THE NILE (1978)
In 1974, legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie became all the rage at the cinema with Sidney Lumet’s all-star MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. The success of that film (with Richard Rodney Bennett’s classic score) started a franchise that included EVIL UNDER THE SUN, THE MIRROR CRACK’D, and many more. DEATH ON THE NILE brought a resurgence to Peter Ustinov’s career as the Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, a role he would play five more times over the next decade in film and on television. For this second entry in the all-star cinematic formula, Nino Rota contributed a sweeping score that flows alongside the blood-tinted Egyptian waters. Like Bennett’s ORIENT EXPRESS score, Rota’s music doesn’t shirk from the murderous drama of the story, but it also captures the period flavor and a regal yet romantic tone that is perfectly in keeping with the lush visuals and Anthony Powell’s rich, Oscar-winning costumes.
Fellini’s masterpiece stars Marcello Matroianni as a film director whose attempts to bring his new film to fruition keeps getting blocked by the many women in his life. Deliberately fragmented by the numerous female tangents, Rota’s score is not his most cohesive, but it suits Fellini’s fractured, fairy tale visions. Rota takes the memorable main theme through a whirlwind of musical styles, from swing and a lively gallop to the memorable circus atmosphere of the reunion finale.
5. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)
With its visions, memories, and mysticism, Fellini’s skewed vision of infidelity is embodied by Giuletta Masina’s suffering wife Juliet. Rota’s score embodies the delightful ’60s instrumentation combined with his effortless gift for melody. From the wordless female vocals to the electric guitar and the ever-present Hammond organ, Rota’s music is a groovy ride infused with joy and life.
If Francis Ford Coppola turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler bestseller into cinematic art, a good portion of that artistic success can be laid at Rota’s feet. From the lonely trumpet of the famous waltz to the even more famous love theme, Rota’s music helped inspire generations of filmmakers and influenced mob films ever after. Rota was a shoo-in for the Oscar until a scandal erupted surrounding the borrowing of themes from the 1958 Italian film FORTUNELLA.
As good as the original GODFATHER was, the sequel was even better. With deeper characterizations and a richer political atmosphere, the film brings Al Pacino’s tortured Michael, now the head of the Corleone family, to the brink of heartbreak. Rota (along with director Francis Ford Coppola’s father, Carmine) finally won an Oscar for this rich musical tapestry, which owes its success in no small part to the themes he created for the original GODFATHER. Memorable musical set pieces include young Vito’s arrival at Ellis Island and a lovely theme for Diane Keaton’s Kay.
2. ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)
Franco Zeffirelli brought a new innocence and energy to Shakespeare’s overworn tale of youthful love and feuding families on the streets of fair Verona. Rota’s famous love theme gave him a number one hit, but there is much more to the score than that one famous melody. Combining modal harmonies with Renaissance rhythms, Rota gives this classic tragic love story a yearning core of (ahem) Shakespearean proportions.
1. THE LEOPARD (1963)
Director Luchino Visconti had no say in casting Burt Lancaster as the Prince of Salina, a noble aristocrat who tries to preserve his family and class amid the social upheavals of 1860’s Sicily. And no matter which version you watch, Burt in English or dubbed in Italian is odd casting. But this epic film gave Rota the chance to shine with arguably his strongest score. Based on his own neglected Symphony on a Love Song, written when Rota was a young man, the score has a wealth of beautiful themes and a not surprising classical elegance and depth (especially given its roots) that is rare and welcome. Conductor Ricardo Muti, one of Rota’s students and a champion of the maestro’s music, opened the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s subscription season this year with the suite from the score. A rarity for film music and a fine, well-deserved tribute to this legendary composer.