It’s been said that a good movie score is the one you don’t notice. It subtly manages to heighten the emotions in a scene without calling too much attention to itself. Fair enough. That may be true for people who know far more about music theory than I do. But I’d also argue this: A better-than-good movie score—in other words, a truly great one—is the one you just can’t get shake long after you’ve walked out of the theater. You can’t stop hearing it in your head, humming it as you walk down the block, and whistling it while you do the dishes. In my lifetime as a religiously faithful congregant in the Church of Cinema, I can think of only two composers who managed to pull that feat off just about every time they lifted their batons: John Williams and the Italian maestro Ennio Morricone, who passed away today in Rome at age 91.
Best known for his infectious, howling-coyote harmonica theme for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the aching religious ecstasy behind Roland Joffe’s The Mission, the swelling, magic-hour lyricism accompanying Terrence Malick’s tone poem Days of Heaven, and the tense drumbeat urgency that fueled Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Morricone was a sonic polymath in a field where many of the most highly-regarded composers are valued for being able to reproduce the same signature sound over and over again. He seemed both unwilling and unable to be pinned down or pigeonholed. More than just a composer for hire, Morricone was a true partner to the directors he worked with (not for), helping them realize visions, often elevating them to heights that even they didn’t know they were able to attain.
Nominated for a half-dozen Academy Awards, Morricone only won one competitive Oscar during his miraculous six-decade career—for Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 epic Western The Hateful Eight. Long overdue, that win made an inevitable, full-circle sort of sense. After all, it was the Western, albeit of the Italian spaghetti variety, that kick-started Morricone’s career. The son of a professional trumpet player, Morricone, who was born in Rome, began writing his own compositions at the Mozartian age of six. He entered the Italian conservatory at 12. Later, as if by fate, he would befriend a portly, bespectacled classmate named Sergio Leone. And much like the chance childhood encounter between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, their bond would become one of the most profound ones in that tiny intersection where Pop Culture meets Art.
Morricone rose through the ranks of the booming Italian film industry of the 1950s, a heady, dolce vita period when Rome’s Cinecitta studio became known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.” His first officially credited score came quickly, on Luciano Salce’s 1961 World War II film The Fascist. But it was his old schoolmate, Leone, who give him a five-fingered boost into the ranks of international renown with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. Thanks to its unusual combination of tight close-ups and majestic widescreen vistas (Spain standing in for John Ford’s Monument Valley), Leone’s spaghetti Western made a global superstar out of a squinting, gun-slinging American TV actor named Clint Eastwood. But it also made a name for the film’s composer when it was finally exported to America three years later, quickly succeeded by two more Man With No Name follow-ups, For a Few Dollars More and the almost-baroque The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
In those films, Morricone proved to a Maestro of unusual and unexpected musical flavors. All of sudden, the go-to film-score staples of piano and violin were replaced by twangy Jew’s harps, whip cracks, surf guitars, buzzing flies and whistling. Morricone’s compositions could be as strange and otherworldly as they were revolutionary. As Exhibit A, you really need to look no further than his soaring theme “The Ecstasy of Gold” which not only plays under but informs the climactic showdown of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (It also later became an introductory theme for Metallica on its concert tours).
Morricone’s output was prodigious, his work ethic tireless. Aficionados of European cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s can testify to the genius of his atmospheric and experimental scores for the countless spaghetti Westerns (The Big Gundown, My Name is Nobody) and twisty giallo thrillers (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Without Apparent Motive) of the period. Meanwhile, the ever-loyal Morricone would always drop whatever assignment he was working on to continue his fruitful collaboration with Leone (who was less prodigious), resulting in his masterclass-level work on 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West and 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America.
But by the ‘70s, the secret was out on the gifted Roman with the unconventional ear, and Hollywood came calling. Eastwood brought the Maestro to Tinseltown (well, only technically—Morricone always composed at a desk in his palazzo in Rome) for his 1970 film Two Mules for Sister Sara. And for the next 50 years, the assignments would never stop coming. Why would they considering the melodramatic magic that Morricone was able to conjure? As an artist, Morricone was never snobbish or parochial in his tastes. He was just as comfortable scoring arthouse films for Bernardo Bertolucci (1900) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Hawks and the Sparrows) as he was genre gems for John Carpenter (The Thing) and Barry Levinson (Bugsy). His range matched his output, which could often tally up to 20 films per year. There was almost never a repeated note.
The winner of four Grammys, two Golden Globes, and a 2007 honorary Oscar (a gilded bookend of sorts with the one he’d later win for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), Morricone only finally began to slow down in recent years. But his passion for music never dimmed. Somehow in his spare time over the years, he’d managed to write countless orchestral compositions that had nothing to do with film. He gave concerts at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and at the United Nations to thunderous ovations. Ennio Morricone’s heart, mind, and body may have resided in his beloved Italian homeland, but by the time he left us earlier today, his music belonged to the world.
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