Ennio Morricone

A Fistful of Film Music


The traditional function of music for films is fairly obvious. Sound tracks heighten emotions felt by the viewer, helping the director suggest horror, suspense, joy, sadness, confusion, or whatever. Operating on an almost psychological level, the effectiveness of the score depends on how it interacts with the visuals. Understandably this means precious little film music succeeds outside of its intended context, isolated from corresponding visuals and narrative.

But considering music’s importance to film, it’s hardly surprising that some significant partnerships have developed over the art form’s history. A few immediately come to mind: Federico Fellini and Nino Rota, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, and the Italian duo Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. In fact, the work of these composers is largely responsible for film music being taken seriously as an art form in its own right rather than serving merely as a background element.

Film sound tracks are now enjoying unprecedented commercial popularity. While random collections of pop tunes frequently make the charts (a trend that really began with The Big Chill), original scores have been appearing on them too. Labels have been generously reissuing old film scores on CD, and it’s clear that appreciation for sound tracks now extends beyond a rabid group of aficionados.

But can you imagine someone coming home from a hard day at the office, opening a cold one, and popping the sound track from North by Northwest into the CD player? Can the work of someone like Morricone–who contributed so much to Leone’s spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly–provide a satisfying, involving listening experience without the image of Henry Fonda as a cold-blooded killer providing a context? A Fistful of Film Music, a new double-CD anthology of Morricone’s work, provides some clues.

It’s estimated that Morricone has scored over 400 films in a career spanning more than 30 years. Even a cursory listen to this set shows that he possesses remarkable flexibility, drawing upon a vast array of styles, sources, and influences. Even though his career is undeniably defined by his early work with Leone, A Fistful of Film Music proves that he’s grown as a composer.

In many ways film music is the most postmodern musical form. The composer must sometimes piece together indigenous sounds to suggest or reinforce locale; the result is often a hodgepodge of stereotypical examples of ethnic music slamming up against other incongruous styles. If a film is set in Shanghai, for example, a snippet of canned Chinese music may work its way into a score, eventually morphing into some symphonic swell of sound. While Morricone is clearly a postmodern composer, it’s to his credit that he by and large eschews such obvious cultural appropriation. Rather, he creates his own motifs and melodies. In the case of the spaghetti westerns he created his own loose Mexican flavor and incorporated it into a host of original motifs–the harmonica riff representing Charles Bronson’s character in Once Upon a Time in the West and the music-box melody of the pocket watch representing Indio in For a Few Dollars More have subsequently become stock references in the lexicon of westerns.

Much of Morricone’s work in the 60s was executed with the help of an ensemble he formed, the Cantori Moderni. This group provided trademark Morricone elements: the distinctive whistling and Duane Eddy-ish, reverb-heavy electric guitar of Alessandro Alessandroni; the haunting, angelic wordless female vocals; the searing trumpet and lonesome twang of a Jew’s harp; and the shouted grunts in unison. He later innovatively employed electronics and feedback. Whereas most film scores are orchestral, Morricone’s scores used all sorts of bizarre instrumentations and arrangements. When one gets over the novelty of hearing the music from the spaghetti westerns outside of the films, the distinct lack of melody and development becomes palpable. They are carefully sculpted moods, rife with tension, texture, and atmosphere. Because of the formalistic audacity, the music’s sheer inventiveness proves to be a renewable source of pleasure on its own terms.

It wasn’t until Morricone scored films in the 80s and early 90s–like Once Upon a Time in America (his last collaboration with Leone), The Mission, The Untouchables, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!–that he earned widespread critical acclaim, including several Academy Award nominations. To the nonaficionado, it’s hard to imagine getting too worked up about anything aside from his westerns. While his knack for stylistic experiments is certainly noble and sometimes interesting, it isn’t always pleasing. For every humorous accomplishment (such as the low-key frog sounds that punctuate “March of the Beggars” from Duck, You Sucker) or striking dramatic moment (the ominous dirge of “Pazzia da Lavoro” from The Working Class Goes to Heaven), there’s insufferable bombastic swill like the rock-damaged “Magic and Ecstasy” from Exorcist II: The Heretic or the plodding jazz-rock fusion of “Gli Scatenati” from Il Gatto. These various journeys may have worked marvelously on-screen, but at home some of this stuff is downright unlistenable.

A Fistful of Film Music serves as a fascinating if maddening survey of work by an unparalleled composer. Its far-reaching stylistic breadth and separation from its cinematic context make it difficult to appreciate on a purely musical level. But if one views the music’s artistic considerations as part of a larger piece of work, Morricone’s genius becomes obvious. On the other hand, I’d rather experience the music thickening the atmosphere while a stern, expressionless Clint Eastwood sizes up a tense situation.