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R.I.P. MORRICONE

ENNIO MORRICONE(1928-2020)

FOR YOUR NAME TO BECOME AN ADJECTIVE OR ADVERB DURING THE COURSE of your lifetime can be a grand accomplishment. (I am deliberately ignoring anything related to social media or reality shows, because those examples are too depressing for consideration.) Especially in the arts its a signifier of style, iconiclassicism and influence.

Think of the “Felliniesque.”

Or the “Joycean.

“Morriconesque” isn’t bandied about so much, although that is likely to change in the near future. The word or phrases one is more likely to hear is that a piece of music “sounds like Morricone.” Which is anything which evokes the soundtrack of a “spaghetti western” or a certain type of Hollywood orchestral gossamar shimmer.

The only other composer from the classic age of films who is as frequently evoked today as Ennio Morricone is of course Bernard Herrmann(1911-1975), synonymous with Alfred Hitchock and for establishing the sonic template for scoring a suspense thriller. Unfortunately their true peers have fallen out of fashion save for cinephiles. One hardly reads so much of Nino Rota(1911-1979) and Georges Auric(1899-1983), let alone detects their influence upon contemporary film scores.

All four men were able to touch the opening pages of “modernity”:  Morricone lived long enough to score a Quentin Tarantino Western, The Hateful Eight(2015); Herrmann the indelible score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver(1975); Rota was the composer for the first two Godfather movies, including winning an Oscar for The Godfather Part II(1974); and whereas Auric finished his movie composing career by 1969, he had always been more of a pure classical composer than the other men and that was where he returned until his death.

Not surprisingly it was Scorsese who may have revived some interest in Auric by borrowing Auric’s surging romantic orchestral score from Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece Le Mepris(1963)–which is one of my favorite pieces of music ever–for his vastly underrated mobsters-in-Vegas epic, Casino(1995).

Of this august quartet–the Last of the Film Composers–MORRICONE may seem to us the most modern. The one more relatable to today’s sounds and movies. (Hermann would not be a distant second.) But why?

Yes, his age and the length of his career allowed him to span the history of movie making, both European and American. Among what makes him modern was his flexibility. He may have had a reputation as a crochetty sort of fellow, but that’s not true about his professional life.

You might break out into laughter examining his prolific career. He worked until almost the very end, across the various media. But it is the range of projects which causes you to marvel and shake your head in disbelief. Sure, he favored his native Italians–although Fellini was out of reach(he and Rota were attached at the hip–like Fellini and Marcello Mastoianni). But he lent his talents to almost every type of movie imaginable, while the list of directors he worked for is a who’s who. And even an incredulous “What?!?” Who else worked with the likes of Tinto Brass, Brian DePalma, Pedro Almodóvar and Roman Polanski? Who else could score The Mission–and Red Sonja?!? Morricone contributed to a number of films directed by Pier Paolo Passolini–and to a docu-drama called Who Killed Passolini!

It’s this elasticity and–oddly–his specific identification with the spaghetti western genre which prevents us from thinking of him as if incased inside amber. The incredible range of directors he worked for prevents us from seeing him just as a fixture of the art house–or the grind house. Comedies, war pictures, gangster dramas. Europa, when it was the center of art. America, when commerce seemed to flatten everything in its wake.

Just as Italian directors in the mid-century reinvented the American western as both entertainment and an art form, Morricone turned the film soundtrack inside out as well. Because the Sergio Leone “horse operas” had very limited budgets(after all they were conceived as glorified B-movies), MORRICONE could not afford to employ the orchestras he had become accustomed to both in Italian movies and television.

Whether by necessity and /or ignenuity his decision to rely on the relativity new instrument of the electric guitar in conjuction with trumpet(his first instrument), whistling, wordless female choirs and a toolbox of percussive special effects was unlike anything which preceded it in movies, let alone Westerns.  For all the panache of flamenco MORRICONE’s spaghetti western scores could evoke, there was also a pre-rock rock sensibility to all of it.

The twangy guitar riffs(and whistling) provided by Alessandro Alessandroni(a childhood friend and like Leone, a former classmate) paralleled the use of the instrument in the John Barry theme and scores for the early James Bond films. Earlier film composers would have relied on the violin or piano for lead expressive voices.

The international popularity of the “Dollars Trilogy”(A Fistfull of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) made stars of Leone, his American cinematic lead Clint Eastwood and Morricone. Morricone’s instrumental tunes were so memorable that they became international classics.

Even today the Morricone template is inescapable. Commercials parody Leone’s direction and Morricone’s music. The pre-rock rock flavor influenced actual rock music to come. That “The Ecstasy of Gold” was used both by the Ramones and Metallica to either open or close their live shows is proof enough. The twangy guitars heard in early Portishead recordings are surely influenced by Morricone, which they set atop slow American-style hip hop beats. But more than a decade or so Jamaican musicians incorporated both the guitars and the unorthodox special effects for ska and dub.

Once the bloom was off the rose for the genre’s popularity and innovations,  MORRICONE moved on from this as a language, returning to the world of full orchestration. His association with Hollywood was lengthy. He had earned a golden status as a film composer and often his commissions were prestigious studio pictures. Looking back at his discography I am struck by how many of those films I had seen but never noticed him listed as composer. Had he become an indistinguishable craftsman or did the fault reside in me?

The few exceptions in which I may have had acutely noticied the music were Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!(because of the uniform musical exellence of his features I tend to pay more attention to them); The Untouchables; Bugsy; Cinema Paradiso; Lolita and Malena.

And his celebrated “reunion” with Sergio Leone for the stupdendous masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America(1984); one of the first films that even as a child I could point to for its greatness. Even the botched “Hollywood version” of Leone’s epic bewitched me as an aria from another artistic universe.

During the hypefest for The Hateful Eight(“MORRICONE!” “TARANTINO!” “THE HATEFUL EIGHT!”) in speaking of his aversion to repeating himself, Morricone spoke almost gleefully and defiantly of refusing to give the brash young American exactly what he was expecting from an “Ennio Morricone score.”

It was an admirable stance. He won his only Academy Award and the film was a huge hit. As it should be.

Rest in peace, Maestro.

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