I wonder whether Ennio Morricone would be accepting an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards Feb. 25 had he not been primary-school classmates with one Sergio Leone.
Morricone likes to remind interviewers that Leone’s spaghetti westerns represent just a sliver of his output (examples of which will be screened February 2-22 at New York’s Film Forum). He’s produced hundreds of scores, including five that have been nominated for Oscars: Days of Heaven, The Mission, The Untouchables, Bugsy and Malena. But his groundbreaking contribution to that trilogy that began 43 years ago is what caught the film world’s imagination and led to a high-profile career. And the truth is that Morricone’s work since then, the quality work of an established artist, has rarely equaled the inventiveness of the early stuff.
Every film score can’t be brilliantly original. Film composers are craftsmen; their music is more or less made to order based on what the film and the director require. The best, like Morricone, are freakishly skilled. They know a range of stylistic languages and work fast out of necessity: they usually have no more than a month to get a score to a director. Morricone belongs with the cream of the crop as far as his versatility. You want symphonic, impressionistic sketches that bring to mind Claude Debussy? Check out Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. A catchy pop score interrupted by outbursts of sobbing strings? I refer you to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. A dose of violent, very modern atonality that confirms the unpleasantness of getting one’s head cracked open by Al Capone? Again, The Untouchables. Morricone has, by importing ideas and styles from music literature old and new, helped to expand what is acceptable film music. Who but Morricone would have peppered Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America with the pan flute of, yes, Zamfir?
Extra impressive is the fact that he arranges, orchestrates and conducts all the music he writes. (Morricone will be conducting his own music Feb. 3 at Radio City Music Hall—his first U.S. concert.) It’s understandable: If you sketch out gems like “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission, or the lament that follows a bombing in The Battle of Algiers, why hand it off to some punk-ass functionary for completion?
But the music of The Man With No Name trilogy is special because it shows Morricone as more than a craftsman who writes beautiful cues. It is strange and inspired, wry and deeply mischievous. In Leone, Morricone had a boss and partner who reserved a prominent place in his films for music. The director, who did not speak English, played pre-recorded arrangements on the set, and even during shooting, to convey to his actors the mood he wanted. “For him, music really was as important as dialogue and all the other components,” Morricone told Cineaste in a 1995 interview. The Rome native dismantled the musical conventions of the American Western just as his fellow Italian, Leone, swept away the directorial norms.
With 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, Morricone eschewed the conventional symphonic themes like those in Elmer Bernstein’s score for 1960’s The Magnificent Seven or Alfred Newman’s music for 1962’s How the West Was Won. Morricone reached instead for instrumentation closer to the dusty, sweaty world of Leone’s characters than to the conservatory. Some of the exotic instrumentation used in the original theme—whip cracks, an electric guitar—came at the request of Leone, who had heard them used in a Morricone arrangement of a Woody Guthrie tune.
Many of the film’s cues use instruments that themselves represent an idea. A guitar, a mouth harp, a pair of lips whistling convey the idea of picaresque solitariness; the bravura Mexican trumpet helps draw a West where Mexican culture is bold and prominent, not incidental.
And his use of the human voice reminds us how striking an instrument it is, whether a group of men chanting the words “We can fight!” or a lone female voice tracing the melody of Once Upon a Time in the West’s sweeping, operatic theme. In the Cineaste interview, Morricone spoke about the instrument that’s too rarely used among film composers. “I love the human voice, because it is an extraordinary instrument,” he said. “It doesn’t go through a piece of wood or metal, it comes directly out of the body and can be the most expressive and malleable instrument.”
In fulfilling Leone’s gritty vision of The West, Morricone also brushed aside the sort of larger-than life triumphalism expressed in, say, the main theme of The Magnificent Seven. His compositions bespeak a savage and stark frontier. And they never create the musical versions of a white hat: Leone’s protagonists are, after all, morally ambiguous at best. With each film of the trilogy the composer grew more confident, more adventuresome. He chooses a blaring church organ theme as the villain Indio uses a chiming pocket watch to toy with his victim in For a Few Dollars More. The theme of the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with its onomatopoeic coyote howl answered by those “wah wah wah"s, is a bold statement of the musical comedy inclinations that had simmered during the first two films. Morricone’s music is part of what makes the trilogy self-consciously folkloric, and that in turn is a key part of the fun.
Morricone has been accused of borrowing from his own material, with some justification. Early in Once Upon a Time in America, for instance, as Noodles eludes his pursuers, we hear for the first time a melody that seems a close cousin of Al Capone’s theme from The Untouchables. And the composer certainly has his bag of tricks, his stock answers to visual questions. There’s the dissonant bloom of brass to help unsettle an audience, and there’s the elegiac strings slowly descending to denote sadness or poignancy. But to expect novelty at every turn is perhaps to romanticize what a film composer is—a hired gun. Morricone is not an ivory tower idealist. If his cues for The Untouchables’ cloying domestic scenes can’t be classified as give-the-people-what-they-want populism, then I don’t know what can: He dishes out the syrup in cues that are as trite as the writing that imagines Mrs. Ness as a Stepford Wife.
Not that there’s anything wrong with pleasing the crowd, especially when such skill is brought to bear. The Untouchables’ staccato, rat-tat-tat suspense theme over the opening credits cries out for popcorn. The kaleidoscopic “Al Capone” is great fun. And that popcorn’s gone by the time you pretend not to be tearing up during the “Death Theme.”
House Next Door contributor Steve Garmhausen is a freelance journalist and musician living in Brooklyn with his wife Alicia and their baby girl Darlene.