When it comes to film-making, it’s usually the actors and directors who get most of the credit and acclaim. The composers of the music rarely get a mention, yet their work is often just as, if not more important. These composers have to tell a story, convey emotions and even further plots without using words, for the most part. Take the infamous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho as example, do you think it would’ve been as effective without that screeching, nerve shattering music from Bernard Herrmann? Or would’ve Superman: The Movie been as effective without John Williams’ theme tune that screams ‘Sup-er-man!’ without even using words?
Some of the greatest films ever feature some of the finest and most memorable music, often from unsung or overlooked composers. Recently, the world of cinema lost one of its greats with the passing of Ennio Morricone and I’m taking the opportunity to remember the man known as ‘The Maestro’. Even if you don’t recognise the name, I guarantee you know at least one of his pieces of music, one in particular, a piece that is often whistled and referenced in many, many films.
Ennio Morricone was born on the 10th of November, 1928 in Rome, Italy. At the age of six, Ennio composed his first ever piece of music and learned how to play the trumpet. From then on, he fell in love with music and began writing more and more. In 1953 when he was twenty-five years old, Ennio landed a job writing tunes for radio shows which soon gave him the opportunity to write for TV and movies. In 1954, Ennio began composing music for films, though he was uncredited or often used the pseudonyms Dan Savio and Leo Nichols. 1961 saw his first credited film score with Il Federale (The Fascist). The early sixties was also when Ennio Morricone found fame with the film genre for which he would become most synonymous, the western, with 1963’s Duello nel Texas (Gunfight at Red Sands). But it was the following year in 1964 when he teamed up with director Sergio Leone when Ennio’s western score a really got noticed.
Due to budget constraints, Ennio Morricone couldn’t have a full orchestra for his music, so he had to improvise. Using a mix of whistles, whip cracks, the Jewish harp, various other sound effects and voices plus a few more conventional musical instruments, he created the score to Per un pugno di dollari, or to give it it’s English title, A Fistful of Dollars. This kick-started a hugely successful partner and friendship between Ennio Morricone and director Sergio Leone. Ennio’s music for the film was otherworldly, almost abstract it is structure, yet wonderfully melodic at the same time. A film score that would go down in history as one of the most influential ever made.
Two more films followed and they soon collectively became known as The Dollars Trilogy. 1965’s For a Few Dollars More saw Ennio Morricone’s experimentation with sound effects help cement his unorthodox and almost trademark style to creating music. But it was the third and final film of the three where Ennio’s music became immortal, and it is one tune in particular that is forever embedded into my brain. You know how I said everyone knows at least one Ennio Morricone piece of music? Well, this is that piece…
That one piece of music, that two minutes and fifty-five seconds of pure perfection from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is THE western score. Whenever I watch a film and there’s a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys, I always instinctively hear that piece of music in my head. Some films have even used it, or a variation of it for similar good/bad guy scenes. It has become synonymous with stand-offs, a musical cue to let you know that some bad shit is about to go down. This is easily Ennio Morricone’s most famous piece and it has had a long lasting legacy through cinema and beyond.
Through the sixties and seventies, Ennio’s music could be found in plenty of westerns. But his music also appeared in dramas, thrillers, horror and all sorts of flicks. Exorcist II: The Heretic is the very, very bad sequel to one of the greatest horror films ever made. The film is universally hated by anyone with an ounce of film-taste, yet its music is often praised, music by Ennio Morricone. In 1979, Ennio was finally nominated for his first Oscar for his music from the romantic period flick, Days of Heaven. Alas, he didn’t win, losing out to John Williams for his amazing ‘Sup-er-man!’ theme.
Ennio Morricone’s music can be found in many films through the eighties and nineties, he just never stopped working. Sword and sorcery box-office bomb, Red Sonja. The amazing, The Untouchables. The Mel Gibson starring Hamlet and the taught thriller, In the Line of Fire all featured an Ennio score, just to name a few of his flicks. But of course, I can’t talk about Ennio Morricone’s scores and not mention one horror film in particular…
Yes, the John Carpenter classic The Thing also has some of that Ennio music magic. One of the first horror flicks I remember seeing as a kid and one that has left a very lasting impression on me. That dog scene, man, that scene is the one single scene that got me so interested in horror films. I loved the gore, the effects, the fact it scared the shit out of me as a kid. But now when I watch The Thing, what hits me harder than the gore effects is the music. There’s this sense of hopelessness with the score, a feeling of dread and despair. Seeing as John Carpenter has always said that this film is an apocalyptic one, the music really works well to convey that foreboding feeling.
Ennio Morricone’s career never seemed to die down, he was popular and very much in demand as a composer for decades, even right up to today. One of his biggest fans was the writer and director Quentin Tarantino. Quentin had always wanted to work with Ennio many times over the years, but one obstacle or another always got in the way, usually a conflict of work patterns. Still, Quentin did use some of Ennio’s music for his films. Kill Bill (both parts), Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds all feature Ennio Morricone music. They were not original recordings though, just music taken from other films. Ennio did eventually write an original song, Ancora Qui, for a Quentin’s flick, Django Unchained. The film also featured three pre-existing pieces from Ennio Morricone’s extensive back catalogue. Their relationship blossomed and Ennio even presented Quentin with a Life Achievement Award at the International Rome Film Festival in 2013.
Then for his next flick, Quentin Tarantino finally realised his dream of having Ennio Morricone score an entire film. 2015’s The Hateful Eight saw Ennio provide music for the picture. Despite a stunning career spanning seven decades (at the time), Ennio Morricone never won an Oscar for his film scores. A total of five nominations between 1979 to 2001, but not a single win… until The Hateful Eight. Yes, finally in 2016, Ennio Morricone was nominated for and won the Oscar for Best Original Score, he was eighty-seven years old too. Ennio was the oldest person to win an Oscar at the time.
What’s also amazing is that Ennio Morricone continued composing music into his nineties. In fact, the animated, The Canterville Ghost (based on the Oscar Wilde short story) to be released later this year features the last of his original scores.
Ennio Morricone died on the 6th of July, 2020 aged ninety-one due to complications after suffering a fall.
“If you scroll through all the movies I’ve worked on, you can understand how I was a specialist in westerns, love stories, political movies, action thrillers, horror movies, and so on. So in other words, I’m no specialist, because I’ve done everything. I’m a specialist in music.”
– Ennio Morricone