Andrew Cartmel remembers Ennio Morricone .
He is gone. I can scarcely believe it. He was 91 and I guess I thought he’d live forever.
There is a sequence in Cinema Paradiso — one of hundreds of films fruitfully scored by Ennio Morricone — featuring a montage of great screen kisses. What we need is an audio montage, a compendium of the unforgettable music from innumerable movies by this literally great man.
Any appreciation of the maestro’s legacy rapidly becomes a long list of classic films accompanied by classic scores, not to mention forgettable and even dreadful films yet still accompanied by classic scores.
Some of Morricone’s finest work was done for low budget thrillers and shockers, what in America would be called exploitation movies, but in Italy were simply the giallo, named for the yellow covers of the pulp paperbacks that inspired them.
The vivid deficiency of many of these films, and the superlative quality of the scores that Morricone created for them, means they might best be viewed as extended, if erratic, promo videos for the indelible music they contain.
Naturally, Morricone’s most famous collaboration with a director — the Alfred Hitchcock to his Bernard Herrmann — is Sergio Leone. Ennio and Sergio went to school together as little boys in Rome and then didn’t see each other again until they faced off warily over A Fistful of Dollars, a cheap vehicle for an ambitious American TV star called Clint Eastwood. It would become the first in a stampede of Spaghetti Westerns and a landmark of 1960s cinema.
The music for that movie remains intoxicating and hair raising. It’s hard to describe the excitement felt by a young kid watching those images accompanied by that music. But I know it well because I was that kid.
This was the first of a landmark series of collaborations with Leone on his Westerns. Morricone would succeed brilliantly with a maverick approach, combining bizarre instruments, always superbly played by the likes of Alessandro Alessandroni and Oscar Valdambrini, with strange vocalisations frequently sung by the virtuosic Edda Dell’Orso and striking slabs of pure sound — musique concrète came naturally in Italian films which were shot silent, with all sound post-synched — and throwing this synthesis at a genre that had always been served by more traditional folk forms.
Morricone had previously worked in mainstream popular music with perky vocalists like Mina (their collaboration Se Telefonando is a towering Italian pop cut, like something recorded by Phil Spector in the Sistine Chapel), but his heart was always in the cutting edge of experimental musical forms, playing with outfits like the collective Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza.
And what was remarkable about his collaborations with Leone was that they were uncompromisingly avant garde — yet wildly popular. Albums of the music from these films — including white bread knock-off versions — soared up the American charts along with John Barry’s scores for James Bond. And like Barry’s Bonds, Morricone’s Western themes were propelled by the electric guitar, a subversively modern and meretricious instrument in such a context at this time.
Of course, the Westerns, and indeed all his collaborations with Leone, were just a tiny part of Morricone’s oeuvre, which ranged from the fabulous mod exotica of Slalom to the incantatory gumbo of church organ, rhythm grooves and chanting on Burn (Queimada) to sexy urban crime thrillers like The Burglars to excoriating experimentation on Exorcist II: The Heretic that would cause George Crumb’s Black Angels to blanche.
Never heard a note of Morricone? Now is a natural time to start. If you were going to listen to just one album I would recommend Once Upon a Time in the West. Just one track? The Ecstasy of Gold, from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Best compilation on vinyl? The long out-of-print Un Film Una Musica (RCA DPSL 10599(2)). Best compilation on CD? Too many to name, but personally I’m fond of a crazed little compendium called Psichedelico Jazzistico (Él Records ACMEM35CD). Or anything that leans heavily on Morricone’s work with Leone and Dario Argento.
Born Rome 10 November 1928
Died Rome 6 July 2020