Ennio Morricone’s Radical Romanticism

On Film / The Daily — Jul 7, 2020
Ennio Morricone

On Monday morning, Giorgio Assumma, a lawyer, stepped out in front of the entrance to the Campus Bio-Medico in Rome to read a prepared statement: “I, Ennio Morricone, am dead.” The dauntingly prolific and immeasurably influential composer of well over four hundred film scores, fifteen piano concertos, thirty symphonic pieces, an opera, and a mass had fallen and fractured a femur, and at the age of ninety-one, passed away following what Assumma described as “postoperative complications.” “Any appreciation at this early stage,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times, “will but scratch the surface of a mighty edifice that spanned nearly seventy years and ran from giallo horror flicks to classic westerns, and which could apply itself, with equal passion, to the most restless experimentation and the most sentimental bathos.”

The range of Morricone’s work stretches from his many years as a founding member of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, a collective of experimental composers, to his work with such pop artists as Mina—her rendition of “Se telefonando” was a massive hit in Europe in 1966—Françoise Hardy, Sting, and the Pet Shop Boys. But Robert D. McFadden is not wrong when he writes in the New York Times that any mention of Morricone’s name will immediately bring to the minds of many “his blend of music and sound effects for Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti westerns of the 1960s: a ticking pocket watch, a sign creaking in the wind, buzzing flies, a twanging Jew’s harp, haunting whistles, cracking whips, gunshots, and a bizarre, wailing ‘ah-ee-ah-ee-ah,’ played on a sweet potato-shaped wind instrument called an ocarina.”

The son of a musician who taught him how to read music and to play several instruments, Morricone began composing when he was six. At the age of twelve, he enrolled at the renowned National Academy of Santa Cecilia and completed a four-year program in just six months. Morricone spent the 1950s playing in a jazz band and arranging pop tunes and theme music for Italian radio and television. Beginning in 1960, he worked on the orchestrations of scores written by other composers: Giovanni Fusco’s for Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), for example, Alessandro Cicognini’s for Vittorio De Sica’s The Last Judgment (1961), or Riz Ortolani’s for Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso (1962). In 1961, he wrote his first full score for a feature film, Luciano Salce’s The Fascist.

When Sergio Leone came calling, Morricone was the first to recall that they had played cops and robbers together in the school courtyard when they were in the same third grade class. In 1964, neither of them were yet aware that their first collaboration, A Fistful of Dollars, featuring Clint Eastwood in his first leading role, would be such a success that it would launch the Man with No Name trilogy. With the opening titles, Morricone’s score introduced a sound that “would define an entire genre,” as Tim Robey writes in the Telegraph: “A strummed guitar, a jaunty theme whistled over it. And then those layers. A piccolo, the clacking of something wooden. A rhythmic bell, a triangle, doing metronomic duty. The sudden barkings of a stern male chorus, while strings and percussion slide in. Before you know it, a full orchestra has erupted into soaring, angelic melody.”

And yet, as Robey points out, Morricone rarely passed up on an opportunity to dismiss Fistful as Leone’s worst film and his own worst score. Talking to Thomas Hobbs in Little White Lies, composer Cliff Martinez, known for his work with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, remembers being knocked out by it as a kid. “I didn’t know a film’s music could be so good,” he says. But the followup, For a Few Dollars More (1965), “was just so much better,” adds Martinez, “mainly because it had much more of a darker edge to it.” The “standout track” is “Carrilon’s Theme,” which plays “like the child lullaby scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street. You realize this is a horror movie, too, not just a western.”

Another accomplished composer, Hans Zimmer, best known for his work with Christopher Nolan, sees a connection between Morricone and Kurt Weill in that “both composers have dealt with an America which doesn’t really exist, a Brechtian America . . . Even in films like [Brian De Palma’s] The Untouchables [1987], Ennio Morricone is still looking at America and hearing America with an Italian ear, seeing it through Italian eyes.”

The Ramones used to wrap their shows with “The Ecstasy of Gold,” the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), while Metallica would use it to wind up their audiences before stepping out on stage. “To me his music is just absolutely inspirational, corny as that may sound,” Metallica’s James Hetfield told Jon Pareles in the New York Times in 2007. “He has taken so many risks, and his music is not polished whatsoever. It’s very rude and blatant. All of a sudden a Mexican horn will come blasting through and just take over the melody. It’s just so raw, really raw, and it feels real, unpolished. You hear mistakes in it, and that’s just great—if they are mistakes. Who knows? There’s so much character in it, and I appreciate that in such a polished world of soundtracks.”

In his book Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, Christopher Frayling wrote that the music in Morricone and Leone’s next collaboration, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is “slower in tempo than usual, more stately, with less variations; and there was much more of it. This time, there was no ‘sproing!’ of the maranzano, no grunting chorus, no whip cracks, pistol shots or bird cries to punctuate the driving rhythms. Leone was deliberately getting away from the riot of imagery in his earlier westerns, and the music, which resembled a 1940s Hollywood score at times, matched this change of emphasis.”

Immediately after Duck, You Sucker! (1971), the second film in the Once Upon a Time trilogy, Morricone set to work on Once Upon a Time in America (1984), “and the score was more or less complete by 1975–6,” notes Frayling, “seven years before a foot of film was shot, which must be a record.” Leone would play recordings on the set not only to set the mood but also to set the pace of the movements of the actors and the camera. “You’d arguably have to reach back to Prokofiev—with his pre-written score to Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938)—to find such a clear example of music dictating cinematic form, a fact of which Morricone was justly proud,” writes Tim Robey.

In the hours since Morricone’s passing, critics and fans have been putting together strings of clips from films by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellocchio, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Corbucci, Mario Bava, Elio Petri, Don Siegel, Dario Argento, John Boorman, Terrence Malick, Gillo Pontecorvo, Roman Polanski, Giuseppe Tornatore, Pedro Almodóvar, Barry Levinson, Wolfgang Petersen, Mike Nichols, Lina Wertmüller, Warren Beatty, and so, so many others, all of them featuring favorite moments in Morricone’s scores. Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis’s selection stands out for its emphasis on Morricone’s range. Some of these lists, like Anne Thompson’s at IndieWire, are ranked, while others, like Bilge Ebiri’s at Vulture, are chronological.

Ebiri presented his annotated list of top twenty-five musical cues in 2015, when Morricone was nominated for his sixth competitive Oscar—the Academy had given him an honorary award in 2007. Morricone sometimes claimed that awards didn’t matter to him, but in 1987, when the Oscar for best original score went to Herbie Hancock for his work on Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight rather than to him for his score for Roland Joffé’s The Mission, he told the Guardian it was a “theft.” Many of his fellow composers would agree. In 2012, Variety polled forty of them, and they voted The Mission up to the top spot of an illustrious list of the greatest film scores of all time. Atli Orvarsson, known for his work in Hollywood on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and back home in Iceland for his score for Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams (2015), told Variety that the “fusion of incredible melodies, choral church music, and ethnic elements makes this, in my humble opinion, Ennio Morricone’s crowning achievement.”

The Academy righted its wrong when it finally awarded Morricone an Oscar for best original score for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015). Tarantino had been quoting from Morricone for years—in his Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004), Death Proof (2007), and Inglourious Basterds (2009), and Morricone wrote an original song for Django Unchained (2012). For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “Ancora Qui” is “a great example of his wonderful gift for melodrama in music, a thrilling musical ability to go straight for the emotional jugular.”

Along with Morricone’s original music, The Hateful Eight also incorporated unused passages that Morricone first wrote for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). The compositions that Carpenter did use “suggest a predator stalking prey to the rhythm of its own throbbing, unstoppable heartbeat,” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer, where he proposes that “one way to look at The Hateful Eight is as a frost-bitten, cross-genre remake of The Thing.” Nayman adds that the music written specifically for The Hateful Eight “has a spare, pressurized quality that goes a long way toward creating and sustaining an atmosphere of claustrophobic suspense; its gradual, swelling progression is the aural equivalent to Tarantino’s all-hell-breaks-loose sensibility.”

To return briefly to both Morricone’s work with Leone and Bilge Ebiri’s outstanding list, there’s a scene in Once Upon a Time in America set in the early twentieth century when a group of achingly young wannabe gangsters come across an enemy with a gun. “Watch and listen,” writes Ebiri, “to how the lone pan flute (played by the great Gheorghe Zamfir) matches the lone boy left out in the open, unable to hide while his friends take cover. Is it manipulative? Sure. But even if you try to resist it, this is the kind of scene that will expertly jerk tears out of you.”

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