For a slight, quietly spoken man, composer and conductor Ennio Morricone is sure as hell a giant. Liz Buckley tips her Stetson.
For a man who’s nearly 90 and still selling out globe-trotting, career-spanning, multi-encore-inspiring tours with a 100-piece orchestra and 100-person choir, Ennio Morricone isn’t half sprightly. And for a soundtrack writer most widely associated with Italian (I refuse to say “Spaghetti”) Westerns, he’s certainly eclectic; he’ll proudly tell you those soundtracks actually represent less than 10 per cent of his musical output.
Over the years, Morricone has written more than 500 (five hundred!) scores for widely diverse film/television/radio productions, with more than 70 of those being award-winning. He’s had countless hit singles, put out a vast array of easy listening and jazz records, written over 100 classical pieces.
He finally received his first Oscar for an original score… last year, nearly a whole decade after he was presented with a somewhat apologetic-feeling Academy Award to honour his career to that point. Never, ever think this man is willing to hang up his frock coat. (If that sounds slightly eerie, he did write the score to John Carpenter’s The Thing.)
I’m not sure how you picture the small maestro Ennio Morricone at school in the central Trastevere area of Rome, but he wasn’t being hauled around 1930s Italy like a mini-monkey Mozart, impressing upper-class dinner guests with his proficiency on a yellowing, antique harpsichord. He was actually playing his first love – knockabout football with his classmate, Sergio Leone.
“Proud never to have left Italy for Hollywood or to have learned English to fit in with either the industry or many of the films he was scoring, Morricone is a man you travel to meet, learn to adapt to and who inspires fierce loyalty at every turn.”
Their partnership proper began some years later, after an evening sharing old school photos and a love of Woody Guthrie, and their older, disarmingly honest and critical selves brought out the best in them, enhancing and honing each other’s skills and reputation with every film and, eventually, challenging the way music and cinema were even produced.
Morricone’s meagre music budget on Leone’s Dollars Trilogy led him to become more experimental due to the loss of instrumentation. Instead, he used gunshots and lasso swirls, whistling and whips to fill out the score as well as to punctuate the black humour.
He added musical curios to films: a fob watch in For a Few Dollars More plays a different tune each time it’s opened to illustrate the character’s current state of mind. Using a soprano voice as an instrument, and the whistling, which became such a signature to these films, came to characterise the solitude of the West.
Such was the eventual trust and respect between director and composer Leone would come to direct new scenes of Once Upon a Time in America along to Morricone’s already finished scores – an unheard-of practice at the time. Morricone once explained that a criticism of Leone’s Westerns for being too slow was really all his fault: scenes were often extended by his friend to incorporate the swathing but irreplaceable soundtrack.
Proud never to have left Italy for Hollywood or to have learned English to fit in with either the industry or many of the films he was scoring, Morricone is a man you travel to meet, learn to adapt to and who inspires fierce loyalty at every turn.
He’s worked on every Leone film since A Fistful of Dollars and every Giuseppe Tornatore film since Cinema Paradiso. Brian de Palma is slavishly loyal to his composition and Quentin Tarantino reused Morricone’s existing music in Kill Bill: Vol 1, Inglourious Basterds AND Django Unchained before finally persuading him to write an original soundtrack for The Hateful Eight (which won Morricone his first eventual Oscar).
In all fairness, I think we can safely say fanboy Tarantino must have shat himself when that “si” came through.
I too have made pilgrimages to see Ennio Morricone, and yes Quentin, I too had to hold onto my arse. For my birthday this year, my delightful friend Laney booked tickets for us to see him at Blenheim Palace, a drive many others didn’t make if the amount of abandoned cars in heavy traffic and people running in late in posh frocks and bare feet were to go by. Picnic pileup!
“Using a soprano voice as an instrument, and the whistling, which became such a signature to these films, came to characterise the solitude of the West.”
He conducted a stunning set that evening, which covered his early work, Cinema Paradiso, The Mission, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Hateful Eight and so much more, on into the night. It was rich darkness that soared… well, until we listened to the Brexit results in the car on the way home (as a passenger, I was incredibly glad we still had some hard alcohol left in the wicker basket).
Some 10 years earlier, I’d been lucky enough to see Morricone play Hammersmith Apollo as part of the Don’t Look Back season. I bumped into my friend Thomas there, a biker who always dresses as a mariachi, and quietly marvelled at how this must have been the first and only occasion he was dressed entirely correctly.
Morricone’s influence remains vast and all encompassing, not just on the clothing of my friend Thomas. Alongside swathes of the more obviously influenced, from Muse to Massive Attack, you’ll also find Jay Z has sampled him. Mike Patton of Faith No More released the excellent Morricone rarities compilation Crime and Dissonance on his Ipecac label, Metallica came onstage to The Ecstasy of Gold during their Through The Never film/tour and The Ramones used to exit many a gig to him.
He is everywhere and he is wonderful. Never underestimate the Maestro.
The Songs of Ennio Morricone is available from this week on Ace Records.7419 Views
Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.