Staff Picks: The Electrifying Ennio Morricone

Today marks the 92nd Birthday of one of the most accomplished and prolific composers in the history of film, Ennio Morricone. It was in July of this year the Italian maestro unfortunately passed, so out of respect for his life and his work, we at A Fistful of Film would like to look back at some of our favorite Morricone scores and the films he penned them for. With a career spanning six decades and well over 400 musical scores for feature-length films alone, the award-winning work of Morricone varied in genre, orchestration, and innovations. While narrowing down our selections was no mean feat, the following article covers some of his classic scores for Sergio Leone, his work in the giallo genre, his more underground and unnoticed work in the 70s, all the way to his final two film scores.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984) By David Alkhed

As some of the people who follow and know me on this site probably know at this point, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is my favorite film of all time. I love the film for many reasons but one of the chief reasons is the score by the divine Ennio Morricone who, for my money, was the greatest film composer of all time and arguably composers in general.

What makes Once Upon a Time in America such a masterpiece of music is, like the rest of Morricone’s back catalogue, the variety but also depths of emotions they touch upon. The main theme is infused with a nostalgic longing for simpler times and childhood friendships. The track “Poverty” on the other hand strikes you with a feeling of sadness and a harsh reality there’s no escape from. But the crowning achievement of the score and of Morricone’s career in my opinion, is “Deborah’s Theme.” The track is given the full orchestral treatment to drive home the main character Noodles’ feelings of regret and unrequited feelings regarding the love of his life, Deborah. What’s amazing about this track is that it can be so many different emotions all at the same time. Whilst the track is ultimately sad and tragic, it’s also heavenly beautiful due in part to Edda Dell’Orso’s vocals that almost gives it a sense of nostalgia but not bitterly but rather joyously, much like the film itself.

When I heard the news of Morricone’s passing, I was very sad and almost on the verge of tears due to how much his music had meant to me. But now, much like Noodles at the end of the film, I simply stare up in the sky with a big grin, thinking back to the incredible life and career the maestro had and how he unselfishly enriched our own lives with his music.

The Hateful Eight (2015) By Amos Lamb

Everyone on Earth by now knows how much Quentin Tarantino loves Sergio Leone and his films; I think I knew Tarantino loved The Good, The Bad & The Ugly before I even knew what a “Spaghetti Western” was. And while I must shamefully admit that I have yet to watch any of Leone’s films himself, it is a pretty well established fact by now that an integral part of his well-regarded classics is, of course, Ennio Morricone’s work as Composer. So we can only imagine Tarantino’s feeling when he not only, managed to convince Morricone to work with him again, after the prolific film composer publicly stated he would never work with Tarantino again after Django Unchained, but also got Morricone onboard to compose the film’s full original score. 

What a lot of people like to make a big deal about with Morricone’s score for The Hateful Eight is the fact that many of the tracks came from unused songs Morricone created for John Carpenter’s The Thing. While some people online have tried to construe this as a slight against Tarantino, some sort of “haha you didn’t get your original score” is the most common version of this argument I see, but honestly, it fits perfectly into Tarantino’s postmodern style that put the controversial director on the map to begin with. The influence of The Thing on both The Hateful Eight and Tarantino’s debut film, Reservoir Dogs, is undeniable, and one of the most entertaining and unique aspects of Tarantino’s filmmaking is his ability to take elements, moments, visuals, etc. from his favourite film’s and reshape or contextualize them in his own. The throwaways from The Thing’s soundtrack is best of both worlds for Tarantino, he gets his original score that he, correctly, thought The Hateful Eight deserved, and the music, which has always been all-important to his films, still retains the influence that helped shape the film. 

But regardless of where it came from, or what it was written for, Morricone’s score is absolutely sublime. While I don’t think anyone expected anything else from the late composer, especially with it coming so much later in his career when his work had already spoken for itself many times over. It’s such an impressive score, and really highlights the versatility of Morricone’s grasp of the importance of music in film that simply through a common theme of isolation, the recycled tracks can still feel perfectly at home in a film made over 30 years after the music itself was written. But Morricone’s new tracks can’t be dismissed either, the title track alone is one of the most imposing features of the film, setting the tone and atmosphere of the film almost instantly, and this continues throughout the film, blending seamlessly with the fluctuating emotions of the narrative.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) By Saoirse Selway

If there’s two things to be said about Morricone, it’s prolific and boundary pushing. A constant innovator who famously never turned down a job. Famed for his use of increased variation of instrumentation for his western scores in the 60s, what made his work in the Italian horror scene in the 70s important was that he really pushed it the other way in so many cases, stripping back his orchestra and sound to find new ways to lend horror films ambience, and nowhere is that more present than in Lucio Fulci’s revolutionary thriller A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Shot in London, it tells the hallucinogenic story of a women who in a dream state dreams a premonition of a murder. The film is full of repressed desire and class satire. The film feels like lots of different ideas and personalities all shifting in a revolutionary cultural cauldron. This is perfectly reflected in a score that completely epitomizes Morricone’s approach to churning out beautiful scores. The score consists of three themes, each of which is used by itself to establish its own atmosphere, then the three different films are played over each other in different combinations to create whatever effect is needed. Now, this is obviously because Morricone was taking a lot of quick jobs and needed to pump a score out but it creates a beautiful effect. Because you have these associations with what each theme evokes, it perfectly captures the confused and claustrophobic terror of the film. In particular there is a standout chase scene through London’s iconic Alexandra Palace where two themes are interlaces to create an extreme sense of dissonance and tension, because both themes are still doing their job and it’s the clashing of these conflicting musical emotions that creates the tension, it’s just glorious. 

And the rest of the movie’s pretty good too!

L’immoralità (1978), Divina Creatura (1975), & La Corrispondeza (2016) By Jacob Calta

When asked to pick an Ennio Morricone score to discuss for his birthday, or at least name a favorite score to discuss, I simply could not pick. So instead of picking just one, I shall be discussing not one, not two, but three of the late maestro’s masterpieces some may not be aware of. I will be looking at these more as musical compositions than soundtracks, largely because I have not seen these films. And just to set the mood for the kind of deep diving I am doing here film-wise, let us start with our most obscure entry.

In what is arguably one of the greatest acts of juxtaposition, L’immoralità is a 1978 thriller (possibly a giallo if we want to stretch the niche term), known in English as Cock Crows at Eleven. Or rather unknown as this film was only released by Raro Video for the Italian market on home video and has not been touched with a ten-foot poll from stateside distributors, and not without good reason. Directed by a small-time exploitation filmmaker, Massimo Pirri, the story revolves around future New York Ripper red herring Howard Ross as a child killer, who becomes involved in a twisted plot that includes an adulterous wife, a disabled husband, and their adolescent daughter. Here to contrast the heaping helpings of “hell no” dished up by the film at face value is Ennio Morricone, composing arguably one of the most melancholic and wistful scores of his career, in the very same year the Italian icon scored Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the charming French comedy La Cage aux Folles. While certainly monothematic, with much of the music revolving around the main theme from the soundtrack’s opening, “Perché Simona,” it is one of his most profoundly captivating, with its delicate piano performances, and lush strings. It is presented with enough variations in orchestration and arrangements, along with the heavenly voice of veteran collaborator Edda Dell’Orso, to make the 11-track LP a dreamy listen from top to bottom. Plus, it is easy to disassociate the music from the film thanks to the latter being all but buried as far as wide distribution goes.

Second up is a bit more of straight drama, and courtesy of a quiet collaborator of Morricone’s: director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi. 1975’s Divina Creatura, otherwise known as The Divine Nymph. The third collaboration of the composer and director after 1969’s Love Circle, best remember for Morricone’s beloved theme song, and Griffi’s X-rated 1971 adaptation of the Jacobean tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by English playwright John Ford. It also represented somewhat of a baton passing between generations of Italian film music as the score’s primary composer was Italian songwriter and industry veteran Cesare A. Bixio, with Morricone serving as arranger and conductor, and with the score being Bixio’s last before his passing in 1978. While this might seem like cheating a bit, take one listen to the opening track, “L’Ultimo Arlecchino,” and you know it is instantly Morricone, with his trademark mannerisms written all over the music in both orchestration and arrangement, with even his impassioned conducting detectable through the music. It makes for a great companion to his legendary music (and in my humble opinion, his cinematic magnum opus) for Once Upon a Time in America. This allusion is uniquely pertinent to Divina Creatura as the aforementioned film is a tale of a love triangle between Laura Antonelli, Terence Stamp, and Marcello Mastroianni set in the Roaring Twenties, with plenty of period-inspired ballroom dance music to contrast the tender romance that anticipates Once Upon a Time quite powerfully.

Lastly is perhaps the most important of the bunch: Ennio’s last. 2016’s Correspondence showcases all that I love about Morricone. His willingness to experiment, but not to forsake his God-given gift of lyricism. The music for his twelfth collaboration with director Giuseppe Tornatore sets a powerful and deeply felt backdrop for the onscreen romance of student Olga Kurylenko and college professor Jeremy Irons. His willingness to experiment is exhibited through his use of modern synthesizers and an electric guitar that gift the more tense moments of the score a totally unique flavor. When bluesy improvisational guitar solos and cool synth pads are not the name of the game, it is impressionism to rival cinema’s romantic masters of the 20th century; the Georges Delerues and the John Barrys. The profoundly simple yet rich piano passages that open the score in “La casa sul lago,” which are developed and pulled together with all the other elements of Morricone’s tapestry into the six-minute nirvana that is “Una luce spente,” are some of his most yearning and captivating melodies since his classic music for Roland Jaffe’s The Mission. One thing remains clear in his music for Correspondence: while Morricone may not have reinvented the wheel with his music, he most certainly proved that he could reinvent his sound one more time.

I wish to leave you with the best way I can introduce you to these, and many more of Morricone’s hidden gems: a Spotify playlist. Started in 2018, I have been consistently adding to this to encapsulate the many facets of Morricone’s sound, from his sexy lounge material of the 70s to his sweeping orchestral romanticism of his later years to even his more adventurously avant-garde work. Hopefully the 150 tracks (at the time of writing this) enclosed can help reveal to you more of the maestro’s incredible versatility, creativity, and pure lyricism through some of his timeless melodies and under-sung musical moods. Rest in peace, Mr. Morricone.

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