He Scores

Ennio Morricone has written great music for good, bad and ugly films

Ennio Morricone can tell you stories about each of his 400 children--where they were conceived, what they mean to him, why each one remains so singular and special he cannot and will not choose a favorite. He's proud even of the orphans, the runts, the bastards, the children long ago born and forgotten, left abandoned and unloved by filmmakers and audiences. The 72-year-old father leaves no one behind: What's insignificant to us remains cherished and beloved to him. And when he's forgotten something about a child, he needs only a small shove in the right direction before every detail comes rushing back to him. "Two or three seconds of music," he says, "and I know exactly every detail."

At this moment, from the end of a phone line in his home in Rome, Morricone is talking about one such forsaken child: his score for the 1979 film The Humanoid, an Italian-made Star Wars knockoff starring Richard "Jaws" Kiel--a movie so cheesy it went straight from theaters to the dairy case. The film is but one of dozens on Morricone's résumé that never saw the dark of an American theater; it ranks up (or down) there with the likes of 1972's The School That Couldn't Scream, 1974's Spasmo, 1975's Torture Train, and on and on. Morricone is legendary for his work with Sergio Leone (he scored all of the director's films, among them such carbo-loaded Westerns as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and beloved for his music for Roland Joffé's The Mission and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, but he is understandably tired of speaking about those movies. As Morricone has so often said, of his 400 kids, only a handful were Westerns--roughly "8 percent," give or take, he reminds.

"There was a moment when I had to turn down lots and lots and lots of Westerns," he says, speaking through an interpreter, "because everybody was coming to me saying, 'Write the music for my film! Write the music for my film!' I had to avoid becoming just a Western specialist. It was very, very dangerous."

Ennio Morricone has been nominated for five Oscars -- and he's yet to win one.
Ennio Morricone has been nominated for five Oscars -- and he's yet to win one.

Better, then, to talk about the neglected work, if only because it too should be celebrated, even if so many of the films to which Morricone's music was attached are unworthy of the connection. The man referred to by his friends as Il Maestro is clearly delighted to explain why his score for The Humanoid is electronic, minimalist, avant-garde bleep-bleep-bleeps plinked out on a synthesizer, perhaps because it sounds nothing like the soaring coyote-calls of his Western scores or the symphonic grandeur of his more recent and more familiar works. To hear him explain why explains a great deal about this man who ranks alongside Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, Alfred Newman, Henry Mancini, John Williams and Elmer Bernstein as one of the few composers to make music as vital as the films to which their names were attached. (This despite the fact that in the handful of books written about film music, Morricone receives scant mention; in most, he is ignored completely.)

"The Humanoid was an Italian science-fiction film where I believed I was answering, in my own way, the American science-fiction films with which I was familiar," he says. "Also, I was recognizing the great bravura of John Williams and his Star Wars score. I felt that the [music in those films] was inadequate to explain the infinite, which is what science fiction wishes to represent. It was a personal answer to the [music] which American cinema had proposed for space. It gave me the feeling of the infinite, of the mysteries of the world we don't know. When I used to see American science-fiction films, when I didn't approve of certain musical behavior, I asked myself what would I have done in that case. So when I did The Humanoid, I already had in mind what my behavior would be. In this case, my behavior came from a position of, let's call it correctively critical of American science-fiction films."

And that, put simply, is Morricone's genius (though he bristles at the mention of the word): He destroys the clichés and builds in their place the unheard music. What was once banal and familiar becomes, in Morricone's hands, thrilling and alien. When he and Leone hooked up in 1964 for A Fistful of Dollars, the first of the director's films to star Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name, Morricone looked not to the sweeping scores of Dmitri Tiomkin (who provided the music for such films as High Noon, Rio Bravo and Duel in the Sun) but Italian opera, American rock (especially the twang of guitarist Duane Eddy) and the ambient sounds of the city (say, the striking of an anvil or the ringing of a bell in the distance). When he composed the theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he imagined it being howled by a coyote somewhere on the horizon.

In the process, he's among the few film composers to make music that works even better off the screen; Rhino Records' 1995 two-disc collection, A Fistful of Film Music, proves how powerful his work is once freed from the confines of the theater. As such, he has been a tremendous influence not just on composers but on the larger pop-music world. "Il Giardino Delle Delizie" from the 1967 film The Garden of Delights eerily presages "Private Idaho" by the B-52's (they're nearly identical); avant-garde composer-performer John Zorn paid homage to Morricone on his 1985 album The Big Gundown (restored and rereleased just last year); and Wall of Voodoo, Adam and the Ants, Portishead, David Holmes and so many other new-wavers and post-rockers lifted their strum-and-twang from Morricone's Westerns. Morricone says only recently did he become aware of how his work informed the music of others, but he's loath to claim himself as an influence.

Next Page »