Every patron who has ever sat in a darkened cinema has, at some point, enjoyed the music of Ennio Morricone. European audiences were introduced to Morricone’s evocative orchestrations with Luciano Salce’s 1961 wartime comedy Il federale. His countrymen and, in quick succession, international audiences would soon elevate the prolific composer to revered status. Even if his scores were occasionally the best thing about bad movies, they were more often intrinsically part of many great ones.
Morricone would become known as a composer that would subtly underline a scene’s potency, yet when the same score were played in a crowded auditorium the arrangements would soar. Directors would seek him out over and over again: Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; The Cat O’Nine Tails; Four Flies on Grey Velvet); Roland Joffe (The Mission; Vatel; Fat Man and Little Boy; City of Joy); Guiseppe Tornatore (Baaria; The Legend of 1900; Everybody’s Fine); and Pier Paolo Passolini (The Hawks and The Sparrows; The Decameron; Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom; The Canterbury Tales), to name just a few that Morricone aided in a career spanning over 500 credits.
A five-time Oscar nominee and recipient of an honorary trophy in 2007 “for his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music,” the 83-year-old Roman feels a profound affinity with audiences, whether they sit enthralled by his movie music or his live work. In honour of Ennio Morricone’s first Australian visit, SBS Film takes a glance at some the compositions and periods of creative output that have led to his crowning as ‘The Mozart of Film Music’.
The Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone
Having graduated from the Conservatory of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Morricone had only one cheap Euro-Western score to his credit (Duello nel Texas, under the pseudonym of Dan Savio) when he met an old classmate from his youth. The young director Sergio Leone needed music for his new film, another Western, adapted from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and starring an American ‘nobody’. Per un pugno di dollari translated to A Fistful of Dollars, a star emerged in the shape of Clint Eastwood, and one of the most celebrated creative pairings in international cinema was born Leone and Morricone would inspire each other in the follow-ups For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966); their 1968 collaboration, Once Upon in the West, led to Morricone’s signature refrain. Morricone would be Leone’s composer of choice for his entire career; they last worked together on the late director’s final film, the epic migrant saga Once Upon a Time in America (1984).
On Leone, Morricone said: “When I began to compose for Leone, I didn't think about it as writing specifically for that kind of film. I wanted simply to use the idea of the escape to the prairie or desert and the expression of solitude. This is why whistling seemed so appropriate.”
European Triumphs: Allonsanfan and Le Professionnel
Morricone found kindred spirits in brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, whose 1974 film Allonsanfàn allowed him to explore the structured format of the military marching song. (Quentin Tarantino acquired it to play out Inglourious Basterds.). In French director Georges Lautner’s 1981 action-thriller Le Professionnel, featuring one of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s best roles, a piece of music by Morricone called ‘Chi Mai’ would become a huge hit on the pop charts. Both films found Morricone challenged by the confines of genre filmmaking yet he still produced innovative and complex scores.
Cinema Paradiso and Malèna: Collaborations with Giuseppe Tornatore
Guiseppe Tornatore and Ennio Morricone had been long-time friends, having worked together since the early 1970s, so the fact that two of their greatest triumphs were done in each other’s company should be of no surprise. Morricone’s work on Tornatore’s international hit Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Malèna (2000) provide some of the composer’s most gentle, lilting chords, evoking a melancholy for a simpler time that his homeland once enjoyed. Whether basking in the warm memory of what cinema means to a little boy or capturing that first knotted stomach of teenage desire, these scores represent the very personal works of a man at his most vulnerable.
The Mission (1986)
Hot off 1984’s The Killing Fields, director Roland Joffe’s jungle-set story of forced colonialisation and the native world’s exploitation was an ambitious project in every way. Morricone was inspired by both Joffe’s bravado and the film’s resonant themes and delivered a score that was equally daring. Mixing South American influences such as flamenco guitar and pipes with choral chants and Guarani tribal beats, Morricone found a sublime reality within the mayhem of the lead character’s lives and the epic production. Two key themes, ’Falls’ and ’Gabriel's Oboe‘, remain Morricone's most emotionally-engaging pieces; equally remarkable is his orchestration of a Guarani-language version of ‘Ave Maria‘. Named by the American Film Institute as the 23rd greatest film score of all time, it also remains Morricone’s most commercially successful soundtrack release.
Yo-Yo Ma, internationally-renowned cellist, said of The Mission: “Maestro Morricone is simply a great musician. [When you look at the score] it’s not just skin, but the blood and the bones and the craft.”
The American Films, 1980-1995.
Morricone was not enamoured with L.A. (“I was offered a free villa in Hollywood, but I said no thank you, I prefer to live in Italy”), and instead only dabbled in studio films, though his scores were often in service of some poorly-executed works (he scored the infamous Pia Zadora potboiler, Butterfly). But the previous year, he had teamed with Samuel Fuller to create one of his most undervalued scores for the racially-volatile film, White Dog. Morricone was soon being sought out by numerous A-list filmmakers and he eventually delivered some of the decade’s most idiosyncratic film music: the often-imitated ‘pulse’ that was the dark heart of John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982); the blackly cartoonish soundtrack to Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs (1989); his reteaming with Clint Eastwood on Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line of Fire (1993); high-profile projects with Roman Polanski (Frantic, 1988), Franco Zeffirelli (Hamlet, 1990) and Mike Nichols (Wolf, 1994). It was Brian De Palma’s richly cinematic vision of Prohibition-era Chicago in The Untouchables (1987) that granted Morricone the scope to employ his most operatic flourishes. Golden Globe- and Oscar-nominated, it would win BAFTA and Grammy honours. The duo would work together again on Casualties of War (1989) and Mission to Mars (2000).
Barry Levinson, who worked with Morricone on Bugsy (1991) and Disclosure (1994), once said: “He doesn’t have a piano in his studio. I always thought that with composers, you sit at the piano, and you try to find the melody. There’s no such thing with him. He hears a melody, and he writes it down. He hears the orchestration completely done.”
Ennio Morricone conducts the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in a two-hour retrospective of his most-acclaimed works on Friday March 2 in Elder Park as part of the Adelaide Festival. For more information click here.
Picture source: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.