A young boy leads a mule to a water pump in the middle of a sun-parched desert. He gazes out over the utter wilderness, and sees a single man riding towards him, a dusty hat casting a long shadow over his face. The man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in a world where no visitor is ever greeted without suspicion. As the boy looks, a Spanish guitar begins to play a simple tune, accompanied by the gentle sighing of some violins. Without a word being said, the viewer knows that, while this place is a dangerous one, it is also redeemable. As the violins ascend to a major chord, we also realize that this man is not the villain of the piece–but he is in danger. The moaning of some pipes picks up a familiar warbling tune….
It’s incredibly how much the score of a film can tell us, without a single word being said, or a single look exchanged. But it takes a pretty remarkable composer to make the world of a film so tangible, and so unforgettable.
Today, though, is a day to celebrate one of those rare and wonderful composers, as the magnificent Ennio Morricone, celebrates his 87th birthday.
Morricone’s career is, in many ways, a history of modern film-making itself. He began, though, as a musical prodigy in trumpet, completing a four-year course of study in six months (at the age of 12). After nearly a decade as a classical composer, he began scoring radio plays, and eventually television dramas and comedies. Apparently, it all came easily to him–in a later interview with The New York Times, director Barry Levinson, who worked with Morricone on Bugsy and Disclosure, 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 Morricone. He hears a melody, and he writes it down. He hears the orchestration completely done.”
It was the advent of the ‘Spaghetti Western’, however, that raised Morricone to international fame. These films were relatively cheap to make, but scored enormous box-office success, because they played on myths of the American West, and the glory of the indomitable everyman hero. By far and away, the best known of these films is A Fistful of Dollars, staring Clint Eastwood, and directed by Serio Leone.
Because Leone and Morricone were school friends, Morricone was invited to score A Fistful of Dollars…and the rest was history. He went on to score the rest of the Dollars trilogy, as well as numerous other films, including The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, producing arguably the most familiar musical theme in cinema:
The soundtrack itself is kind of bizarre when heard out of context…the blend of mouth organ, Fender guitars, and chanting were as jarring for audiences in 1966 as they are today. But it works for the film, cluing the audience in to the tough, blackly comic nature of the protagonists, and offering a strident, relentless beat to set the film’s tone.
From Westerns, Morricone moved into other genres, from political dramas to horror flicks, before being asked to score John Huston’s epic film The Bible, which brought him to Hollywood.
We’d be here all day if I tried to list all the films for which Morricone has provided the score, but I can guarantee you that you have heard his music (outside of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, of course) in films as diverse as Lolita and The Legend of 1900 to Mission to Mars and Bulworth. So, in honor of Ennio Morricone’s 87th birthday, why not come into the library and check out the music that has made films great. With nearly 500 scores from which to chose, I can guarantee you that you’ll find something to your liking. In order to save time, though, here are a few favorites for your consideration:
The Mission: Morricone’s second Oscar nomination came for his score for this utterly profound, stunning beautiful film about the Spanish colonization of South America in the 18th century. Check out a scene (featuring the most lovely oboe solo ever) here, which also features members of the Waunana tribe, who used the film as a way to protect and promote their indigenous language. The blending of European hymns with their tribal chants can be heard here. Though the subject matter may seem remote, this a wonderfully human film that features what is generally recognized as one of the most impactful scores in film history–AFI even listed it as one of the greatest scores of all time. But my Grandfather said it should be first. So we’re listing it first.
The Untouchables: Brian De Palma’s depiction of the larger-than-life Al Capone (also played by DeNiro) and his persecution by Elliot Ness and his titular Untouchables has all the hallmarks of a classic gangster film–with the addition of a sensation score (check out the main theme for the film here). This score, which includes period-specific pieces by Duke Ellington, earned Morricone another Oscar nomination in 1987.
Cinema Paradiso: If we really want to talk about unforgettable film scores, let’s talk about Cinema Paradiso, a film in which a successful film director, Salvatore, recalls the relationships that shaped his life–with a film projectionist in his home town named Alfredo, and with the films that they watched together. The final scene of this movie, when Salvatore realizes that Alfredo spent his whole life collecting the magical, human moments of films that the local priest demanded cut out, is backed up by the simplest, and loveliest of themes, composed by Morricone and his son Andrea…just watch it. Seriously, I’m not crying. You’re crying.
Finally, for those looking to revel in Morricone’s orchestrations by themselves, you simply can’t do better than this recording by Yo-Yo Ma, featuring some of Morricone’s most well known and beautiful pieces.