In most cases, movie music is subtle shading for a scene. It rarely grabs you by the throat and shakes you until you notice it. At least, it doesn’t unless the music is written by Ennio Morricone. For fifty years, Morricone has written scores for movies that don’t simply add to the film’s emotional impact but become almost a character in the story – one who reaches into your soul and plucks the strings of your heart. His work has been featured in over 400 films.
Morricone was born in Rome in 1928. He studied music at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, receiving a diploma in the trumpet at 18, then went on to study the composition of theater music. In 1953 he did his first arrangement for a series of radio programs, and graduated with a degree in composition in 1954. He worked first in Italian television, but in 1961 he moved on to movies.
His breakthrough came three years late, with the 1964 release of Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, which created the Spaghetti Western genre. However, if you looked at the credits at that time, you would have seen the name ‘Leo Nichols.’ Many of the crew took nom de plumes or anglicized their names when the movie was released in the US. The combination of a pan pipe, guitar, and a church bell chime was unlike anything in the American cinema at that time. Leone scored all three of the so-called “Man With No Name” films that Leone did with Clint Eastwood, and with the third movie lightning struck. The theme for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly became a radio hit, and has remained an iconic theme that has been used time and time again. In the past 10 years, it has shown up in well over a dozen movies and TV shows.
In the 1960s and into the 1970s, Morricone worked mostly in Italy, scoring 8-10 movies a year. He did a few more westerns, including Once Upon A Time In The West, working again with Leone, and the Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood collaboration Two Mules for Sister Sara, but he showed his versatility by working on all kinds of movies. He wrote a twisty, lyrical yet discordant theme for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, about a chief of detectives who kills his mistress and then deliberately leaves clues pointing at himself as the killer. The film won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1971. To listen to the theme, click here.
Morricone’s work with Hollywood developed slowly. One of his first major scores for an American film was for Terrance Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven. It brought him his first Oscar nomination. (Sadly, Morricone has never won an Oscar for a movie score, though the Academy finally acknowledged his brilliance with a special Oscar in 2007.) That same year, Morricone did the score for La Cage aux Folles.
In 1986, Morricone wrote one of the best film scores ever for The Mission. The story of priests in South America first trying to convert the natives and then protect them from the incursion of Europeans is a remarkable film on belief and faith, and starred Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro. If you have seen the movie, it is impossible to remember scenes without hearing Morricone’s haunting themes. To see Morricone conduct a performance of the movie’s main theme, click here. It should have won the Oscar, but it lost out to Herbie Hancock’s jazz theme for Round Midnight.
The next year Morricone scored one of the biggest hits of the year, Brian DePalma’s update of The Untouchables. The opening theme grabs you with its pulse pounding, staccato beat that reminds you of a gunfight, while the theme winds sinuously through the mix. (To listen to it, click here.) The film builds to one of the most triumphal ending themes that has ever been used in a film.
In 1988, Morricone provided the lush score to accompany a film that was a love letter to movie lovers, Cinema Paradiso. The story of a film director returns to his Sicilian hometown for the funeral of his childhood friend, the projectionist at the local cinema, who then relives his discovery of movies and love, provided Morricone with a rich tapestry where he could weave his magic.(To listen to the finale, click here.)
By now Morricone was established as one of the great scorers of film on both sides of the Atlantic. He did the scores for In The Line of Fire (once again providing music for Clint Eastwood’s performance), Disclosure, and The Legend of 1900, for which he created the lush piano themes played in the movie by Tim Roth. One of his best themes was for 2000’s Malena, another collaboration with Giuseppe Tornatore, who also made Cinema Paradiso and The Legend of 1900. (Click here to listen to Malena)
Morricone is now well into his ‘80s, but he continues to compose in Italy. A few years ago he collaborated on an excellent retrospective of his work performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. His previous compositions have been entertaining new movie audiences recently, as they’ve been featured in Inglourious Basterds, The Book of Eli, The Holiday, and Django Unchained. It is like a great actor reprising a role in a new film – and doing it just as well as it the original. That is great music.