Tom Jolliffe on the timeless work of the late, great Ennio Morricone…
Alongside the visual imagery in a film, the accompanying music has an ability to work in perfect unison to boost the emotional impact of a sequence. Sometimes a score can enhance a scene, or the music overall can take a picture up a few levels. Where would films like Psycho or Star Wars be without such legendary musical accompaniment? The very best in the business become iconic. Cinema lost one of the very greatest of all time with the sad passing of Ennio Morricone.
A composer with such a unique ability to create moods and to beautifully encapsulate the themes of a film. Morricone was capable of musical perfection. Furthermore, he showed an impressive ability to diversify in genre and style. He was a musical chameleon, despite being so hugely iconic in grand epic music. You could look for example at his work in John Carpenter’s, The Thing, which was highly unexpected from Morricone. He had done horror movies and plenty of B movie work, but this stripped away his orchestral harmonies for droning synths and creepy pulses. It was simply a master showing an unexpected string to his bow.
Of course, Morricone will be forever associated with his work in Spaghetti Westerns. When one thinks of the very Western genre, there are several musical associations you might find come to mind that are most synonymous. His theme in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly strikes an image of cowboys almost as much as seeing a Stetson. It’s no small feat to become so iconic that when most people think of an associative soundtrack to an entire genre, they will almost instantly leap to this. His collaborations with Sergio Leone were legendary. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is legendary of course. His music in Once Upon a Time In The West was stunning, probably his finest work, and arguably one of the most exceptional scores of all time. That music in itself has been reused innumerable times in trailers too. Evocative melodies and grand emotion were specialities of Morricone, something only a select few composers can claim equal skill at. His style was ahead of his time, and now sits as a benchmark of scores from a bygone age that have a certain majesty often lacking today. His work is oh so classical, beautiful, haunting and inspiring and there aren’t many 21st century composers who can hit those levels. It feels almost like the ‘big’ scores feel a bit generic these days, or the more dramatic films go for lower key.
Morricone worked solidly from 1960 until recently. It was somehow deemed that Quentin Tarantino dragged Morricone out of retirement, but the truth is, Morricone was working steadily and doing a lot of work in his homeland of Italy. This was a man with over 500 composing credits of course. His masters touch adding class over not just his epic masterworks, but a host of B movies. His musical prowess elevating critically derided films like Red Sonja (the score is amazing in this) or Cannon Films epic, Sahara. There was always a distinct feeling of musical passion coming through and never a sense of going through the motions. Whilst very synonymous with Leone, he was also a key figure in Giallo cinema. Long before Dario Argento become more heavily associated with prog-rocker scores from Goblin, he worked with Morricone in his earlier films such as The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (a great Morricone score) and The Cat O’Nine Tails. He really covered just about every genre and seemed to have a gift to stamp his mark on each (with great work on a number of Euro Thrillers, including Frantic).
Given the sheer number of iconic scores he did in films considered masterworks, it goes without saying that his lack of Oscar recognition through the years was a huge oversight. Five nominations initially (including defining work in The Untouchables and Days of Heaven, both exquisite scores that are wildly different too) don’t seem like enough considering the likes of his Western work, Cinema Paradiso, and Once Upon A Time In America (all iconic music) were overlooked. He finally received an honorary Oscar in 2007. These can occasionally be an admission of being wrong, and boy have the Academy been wrong for a long time. They went further, awarding him his first dedicated Oscar for his big screen return with Tarantino in The Hateful Eight. He did win 6 Baftas from 6 nods, so as a Brit I take a bit of pride in our academy making the right call, but again…doesn’t seem like enough, particularly as the big event recognition from the Oscars, Baftas etc, didn’t seem to kick in until Days of Heaven. Still, statuettes are of little relevance when compared to historic legacy, and on that front, Morricone is up in the grand pantheon with the finest composers in film history.
Morricone had a great flexibility in his style. A real gift for implementing woodwind and brass in a way that hasn’t dated, and that was subtle and harmonious. It’s part of what (in particular with his more epic work) gave films a distinct Morricone feel (at the same time he’s head great piano lead scores, string lead and even synth, a master of all caveats). He could really paint a picture too, and when that was combined with the kind of visual power of a Leone, a Malick, a De Palma, the results of that audio/visual cohesion were astounding. Think of the finales to his Westerns, the locusts scene in Days of Heaven, the sombre themes in The Untouchables when heroes die. A stunning image tied with the exceptional musical craft of the maestro Morricone results in that image, and the music being timeless. You could pick any film he scored, listen to a cue, and it’ll sound great, whether the film matched up or not.
What’s your favourite Morricone score? Favourite moment? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Twitter page @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/