Nicola Piovani has more than 130 film scores to his name, has won some of the most prestigious awards for his compositions, and has been nominated for practically all the rest.
So why is it that most people have never heard of this guy? Is he some kind of musical gnome, showing up to the studio in the night and leaving fully-formed compositions to be found by the filmmakers the next morning?
The truth is a tad less fantastical than that (sadness). The movie industry is notoriously focused on the Hollywood scene, and with the possible exception of directors, professionals who work exclusively in foreign industries tend to get short shrift.
Case in point: in 2000, Piovani's work on Life Is Beautiful was nominated for a Grammy for Best Score but lost to Randy Newman's score for A Bug's Life.
Are you kidding us? A Bug's Life? That's criminal neglect right there, Shmoopers.
Piovani has worked almost exclusively on Italian films. Notables include The Voice of the Moon, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, A Leap in the Dark, The Night of the Shooting Stars, and Kaos. All are worth a google, but we've got to give a nod to Piovani's work in Kaos. Here's a sample of that awesomeness.
But if you're going to start studying Piovani's work, then his score for Life Is Beautiful is where it's at. It's his most well-known score, nabbing him an Academy Award for Best Music. The score also marks one of several collaborations with Roberto Benigni, including Pinocchio and The Tiger and the Snow.
What makes Life Is Beautiful's score so pivotal in such prolific composer's career? For starters, it's a sublime example of classical scoring, perfectly matching the film's classic design and movie-making philosophy. Using orchestral music, it engages the viewers' emotions so that they vicariously feel what the characters on screen do.
Consider the track "Buon Giorno Principessa" (Good Morning, Princess). The composition opens with a harp before an organ and clarinet lightly join in. Further winds and strings join as it continues, but the euphonic sound remains soft and inviting. Eventually, the orchestra picks up to a resounding crescendo before settling back down and exiting on the same arrangement we started with.
Obviously, the track is connected to Dora, being named after Guido's pet phrase for her. This character connection also connects the music to the film's theme of love. It's light and airy without any heavy, earthy percussion bringing the sound down.
But it also has elements of excitement and effusive joy bursting out of it—just listen to that crescendo. This track puts us into Guido's emotional state, and we feel the love Guido feels for Dora. Through the music, we see her as he does.
Then there's "La vita è bella" (Life Is Beautiful). Borrowing the film's title, the track encompasses the philosophy of the whole movie.
The composition opens with an upbeat guitar and piano combo before moving into the winds. In the background, we can hear a shaker instrument, giving the composition a party-like vibe. It's happy and jovial and inviting with parts that feel like something you would dance to. Even that final cymbal that ends the piece is playful.
This composition perfectly encapsulates the idea that life is meant to be enjoyed, and at the same time it helps us see the world through Guido's eyes. If this is the song this guy has playing in head all the time, no wonder he's so chipper.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have "La notte di fuga" (The Night of Escape). The opening statement enters with foreboding violins and that heavy percussion that was missing from the previous tracks.
As track continues, you can hear "La Vita è Bella" playing lightly in the background, but it's being suppressed by the heavier instruments. As the composition continues, the sounds deepen, and there's a woodblock that sounds like something running through the forest at night.
The composition plays the night where Guido plans to make his escape. The heavier sounds illustrate both the danger at hand and also the oppressive force of death brought by the Nazis (note that drums are often used to denote militarism in movies scores).
The inclusion of "La Vita è Bella" underscores the battle between the philosophy that life is beautiful and the philosophy of death and despair at the heart of the Holocaust. The night of the escape is the moment in the film when those two philosophies come to the climax of their conflict.
Unfortunately, at this point in the movie, the philosophy of life is being suppressed, hence why "La Vita è Bella" is so suffocated by heavier statements.
Of course, there are several other compositions in Piovani's Life Is Beautiful score. Go ahead and give them a listen yourself and see if you can determine how the music helps to elevate the emotions and themes of the move for you. If nothing else, the exercise is sure to give you an appreciate of Piovani's art, making you wonder how he lost that Grammy to Newman.
Seriously, what is it with Newmans?