La Strada, by Nino Rota

1954 was a pivotal year for one of the best director-composer collaborations of all time. By that time Nino Rota, who started his film scoring career in the early 40s, had scored over 90(!) films for many Italian film directors, two of them for Fellini (The White Sheik in 1952 and I Vitelloni in 1953). However their next collaboration proved to be the one that brought them to the world stage and started an amazing streak of some of the best movies and soundtracks of all time: Nights of Cabiria (1957) , La Dolce Vita (1960), 8½ (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Satyricon (1969), The Clowns (1971), Roma (1972),  Amarcord (1973), Orchestra Rehearsal (1978). The tipping point was in 1954 with La Strada (The Road).

Nino Rota and Federico Fellini

Fellini met Rota at Cinecittà, the Italian equivalent of Hollywood that was founded in Rome in 1937 by Benito Mussolini. The studio was bombed during the Second World War and went through a period of reconstruction. In the 50s it became a major studio for European and American films and this is where and when Fellini and Rota met. Fellini recalls that faithful meeting: “Outside Cinecittà, I noticed a funny little man waiting in the wrong place for the tram. He seemed happily oblivious of everything. I felt compelled to wait with him. I was certain that the tram would stop in its regular place and we would have to run for it, and he was equally certain it would stop where he was standing. To my surprise, the tram did stop right in front of us.”

Fellini and Masina at the set of Juliet of the Spirits

For their third collaboration together Rota got a movie that fit his musical leanings like hand to glove. The tragicomedy that outlines the story of Gelsomina and her love/hate relationship with Zampano, the circus and street performing scenes and the overall sad side of the human condition that is a common thread throughout the movie were graced by one of Rota’s best scores. The music for the scenes with Giulietta Masina, who was called the female Chaplin after the movie was released, is moving, sad and funny all at once.

But the music in La Strada goes beyond the typical role reserved to a soundtrack. Thomas Van Order wrote in his excellent book Listening to Fellini: Music and Meaning in Black and White: “Music in La Strada often functions to create meaning rather than act as a simple emotional cue. In fact, sometimes the visual images of La Strada clarify the meaning of the music rather than the other way around.” Rota used a technique practiced by many of the great composers of opera, using a leitmotif to convey the memory of that person in the thoughts of another. That technique assisted in keeping an otherwise fragmented story line together.

La Strada Poster
La Strada poster

Maybe his extensive work for film scores was all the involvement that Rota wanted with the cinema. Michel Legrand told the following story in an interview: “Once I did a concert with Nino Rota in London and after I said to Nino, ‘I have to tell you that my knowledge of films is very poor because I worked so much I didn’t have time to see many of the movies you scored,’ so he said to me,’“Michel, you have to believe me when I tell you, I’ve never seen a single film’. I said, ‘Nino, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘The only films I see are the films that I scored myself, because I hate cinema!’ Ha ha ha. So when you say, ‘Have you seen many films?’ I say, ‘a few.’ But Nino? None at all!’”.

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