Where does one even begin when attempting to contextualize the career of Ennio Morricone? I’m not sure if Morricone is the most prolific composer in the history of cinema, but with more than 500 credits over a 60 year career, I have a hard time imagining anyone stealing that mantle from him. What might be more difficult than quantifying his career is qualifying it. How could someone be this busy and always be so great? It seems impossible, doesn’t it?
Born in Rome, Morricone got an early start as a composer. How early? It’s been reported that Morricone composed his first piece of music at the age of six. What were you doing one year before reaching the age of reason? Me? I got my first pair of glasses. They helped me stay in the lines when I was using my crayons in my coloring books. Morricone was already drawing his own lines and coloring them in with melody.
In the ’50s Morricone performed in a jazz band and composed music for radio broadcasts while also arranging pop songs for the Italian Broadcasting Service. By the end of the decade he became one of the foremost arrangers for RCA Victor. The ’60s would find Morricone turning to the medium that would make him a legend:
Many of his early scores were created for light comedies shot in his native Italy–none of them made a strong impact. Then, he reconnected with Sergio Leone, whom he had first met at the age of eight in elementary school. Beginning with A Fistful Of Dollars in 1964, Leone and Morricone would create the look and sound of “The Spaghetti Western”–a crude name (Morricone hated it) for a genre that produced so many great films, but there it is. Morricone matched his sound to Leone’s unique style–the tight close-ups, black comedy, and sudden violence–to create some of the most distinctive sounds ever put to picture. Their “Dollars” trilogy (which also included For A Few Dollars More, and the singular classic, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly) changed cinema and inspired generations of filmmakers and composers.
The mixture of guitar twang, soaring strings, near-operatic chorus, and that whipping whistle was a feast for the ears. I remember hearing it as a child and feeling like I was learning a new language. Not just new to me, but new to everyone. I suppose we all were learning this new dialect–it was a fresh cinematic language–one that Leone and Morricone seemed to invent right before our eyes and ears. They arguably topped their Dollars trilogy with 1969’s epic, Once Upon A Time In The West.
While Morricone may have redefined the sound of the Western, he was no one-trick pony. He was more than capable of thriving outside of the genre. While working non-stop in the ’60s, he composed scores for films across the full spectrum of cinema, including Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, The Battle Of Algiers–a film that was shot almost like a documentary and couldn’t have possibly been more different than Leone’s perverse take on the Western. The only thing they had in common was Morricone. And he existed in both of their worlds with amazing dexterity and facility. In fact, he glided so easily between the two that he composed Algiers and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly in the same year (along with thirteen(!) other films). The level of accomplishment is simply staggering.
Remaining as prolific as ever, Morricone worked like a whirling dervish in the ’70s. His scores could be heard in films directed by such diverse filmmakers as Don Siegel (Two Mules For Sister Sara), Elio Petri, (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), Dario Argento (The Cat o’ Nine Tails), Leone (Duck You Sucker), Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), and Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven). The latter of which earned him his first Oscar nomination. The beauty of his score for Days may seem a million miles from his work with Leone, but again, the measure of Morricone’s greatness is not only found in iconography, it is found in flexibility.
Morricone’s output may have slowed slightly in the following decade, but the memorable scores kept flowing out of him like an open spigot from a never-ending well. Among the many, there was John Carpenter’s The Thing, Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, Leone’s final film, the masterful gangster epic, Once Upon A Time In America, Roland Joffe’s The Mission, Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables, and Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! It’s breathtaking, isn’t it? Horror, satire, religion, sex farce, and the reinvention of the sound of the gangster flick–all in one decade. There was simply nothing he could not do. I recall seeing The Untouchables in the theater and that pensive, stuttering, nerve-jangling piano set against that whacking percussion created a relentless tension. DePalma made a fine film, but what would it have been without Morricone’s dynamic score? Let’s not even consider it. Morricone received a second and third Oscar nomination for The Mission and The Untouchables. How he didn’t win for both remains a mystery to me.
The ’90s were not quite as memorable for the maestro, but the scores for Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (resulting in Oscar nomination number four), Roland Joffe’s City of Joy, Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line Of Fire, Mike Nichols’ Wolf, Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, and Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900 were all remarkable, legend-burnishing affairs.
Morricone began the millennium with his fifth Oscar nomination for Tornatore’s lustrous Italian coming of age film, Malena. The remainder of the decade was relatively quiet for the great composer (although I loved his work on the sadly underseen Ripley’s Game). In 2007, the Academy recognized nearly fifty years of flawed oversight by awarding Morricone an honorary Oscar for his contribution to music in film. I suspect that the Academy saw a chance to give the 79-year-old master a lovely “gold watch,” in assumption that they would likely not get the opportunity to award him a competitive Oscar.
Morricone had one last trick up his sleeve though.
In the final decade of his extraordinary career, Morricone was tapped by Quentin Tarantino to score his version of a Western, The Hateful Eight. While the film received mixed reviews, Morricone’s score was greeted with raves, and when the envelope was opened at the 2015 Oscar ceremony, his name was finally called. It was a fitting capper to an unparalleled career. Of course, Morricone never stopped. Just this year, he was attached to an animated film called The Canterville Ghost.
Did any genius ever work so hard or so long at their craft? I feel embarrassed thinking about all the scores I’ve left out of this piece–all those I have yet to hear. Maybe that’s not even the right question to be asking today. Maybe what we should actually be pondering is whether Ennio Morricone was the greatest composer in the history of film itself. As I write these final lines, the same words keep coming back to me:
If not him, then who?
Ennio Morricone died today. He was 91 years old.