I heard early yesterday morning of the death of film composer Ennio Morricone who provided the soundtrack to some of my favourite films. Born in Rome in 1928 while Italy was headed by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Morricone learned music from his father, a trumpeter in small orchestras. He went on to compose scores for movies such as ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, ‘The Mission’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso’ until his death at the age of 91.
The first time I heard his music was from the title music for the 1981 BBC series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George. What a 7 year old was doing watching political period drama television programmes is probably known only to myself! It’s a very beautiful piece of music though and I’m sure was very popular in the 1980’s but I’ve not heard it for decades until today.
Morricone wrote for over 500 films, television programmes, popular songs and orchestras, but it was his friendship with Italian director Sergio Leone that brought him fame, with scores for Spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood in the 1960s.
They include the so-called ‘Dollars Trilogy’ – ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ ‘For a Few Dollars More,’ and ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. Morricone used unconventional instruments such as the Jew’s harp, amplified harmonica, mariachi trumpets, cor anglais and the ocarina – an ancient Chinese instrument shaped like an egg. The music was accompanied by real sounds such as whistling, cracking of whips, gunshots and sounds inspired by wild animals including coyotes.
Even though they were obviously big hits at the time and remain iconic, they were a bit before my time and perhaps a little controversially I don’t count them as his best work though I know that is what he is most appreciated for. I think the composer himself must have felt similarly as he always tried to shake off the association with the Spaghetti Westerns, reminding people, particularly outside Italy, that he had a very creative and productive life before and after the films he made with Leone.
‘It’s a strait-jacket. I just don’t understand how, after all the films I have done, people keep thinking about ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. People are stuck back in time, 30 years ago,’ the Maestro, as he was known in Italy, told Reuters in 2007. ‘My production for Westerns is maybe 7.5 or 8 percent of what I have done overall.’
All told Morricone won two Oscars and dozens of others awards including Golden Globes, Grammys and BAFTAs and may have continued if not for an unfortunate recent accident when he broke his femur some days ago and died during the night in a clinic in Rome.
His last Oscar was in 2016 for best original score for Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’. He first declined the job, but then relented, demanding that Tarantino allow him a ‘total break with the style of Western films I wrote 50 years ago’.
One of Morricone’s most evocative soundtracks was for the 1986 film ‘The Mission,’ by Roland Joffe, for which he was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe.
To accompany the story of the Jesuit missions in 18th century South America, Morricone used European style liturgical chorales and native drums to convey the mix of the old and new worlds.
Another non-Western classic was Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, in 1984, which told the story of poor Jewish children in New York who grow up to become Prohibition-era mobsters.
In Italy, Morricone developed a close friendship with director Giuseppe Tornatore, whose ‘Cinema Paradiso’ won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1989. Morricone also composed for Brian De Palma’s ‘The Untouchables’, Barry Levinson’s ‘Bugsy’, and Margarethe von Trotta’s ‘The Long Silence’ and all manner of other hits.
Being a big fan of more genre films, I have always been a fan of his sound track for The Thing, a sci-fi horror film by John Carpenter.
Just listening to it now it is still as chilling and unnerving as it always was. It sets the scene perfectly and though I’ve never been to a polar region, I wouldn’t want to be listening to this one snowy night on the moors all alone… after all Man is the warmest place to hide!!
My favourite soundtrack though is actually the one he recently won an Oscar for in 2016 The Hateful Eight. It’s a Quentin Tarantino film and like many of his films, the first half of the Hateful Eight is long on suspense and build-up with not a great deal happening until the inevitably violent and bloody pay-off.
This piece of music is from the introduction and really does a perfect job of setting the scene. In many ways it is a very old fashioned western film but with a very stylish 21st century twist. The whole score is great but the long intro that settles on a carriage being ridden through the snow sets the scene for the distrust, deceit, and murderous intent that is about to hit us.
As someone who goes to the cinema more often than not, I rate this film very highly if you like cinema as a kind of art and for me the soundtrack is a fitting epitaph for Ennio Morricone.
For another of my favourite deceased film composers, see my 2015 tribute to My tribute to James Horner – Movie composer extraordinaire