RIP, Ennio Morricone!

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

By Murtaza Ali Khan

The legendary master Italian composer Ennio Morricone is no more. He died in Rome earlier today at the age of 91. According to the news agency ANSA, Morricone succumbed to the injuries he had sustained during fall a few days back which had also fractured his thigh bone. The prolific composer, whose credits include films such as The Battle of Algiers, The Exorcist, Days of Heaven, Novecento, The Thing, The Mission, The Untouchables, Cinema Paradiso, and The Hateful Eight (which finally won him the Academy Award in 2016 other than the honorary Oscar he received in 2007), scored over 500 movies in an illustrious career spanning over seven decades. Noted American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino famously said of him: “He is my favorite composer. And I don’t only mean for movies. I mean including Beethoven, Bach, everybody, Morricone is my favorite.”

While Morricone worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, it his groundbreaking work with the master Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, his former classmate, which gave him ubiquitous acclaim early on in his career. Evidently, it was Morricone’s music that opened up new possibilities for Leone’s style of filmmaking with its characteristic close-ups, breathtaking long-shots, and black humor often backed by quick bursts of violence. Leone's collaboration with Morricone gave cinema some of its greatest compositions, as background music no longer remained merely music in Leone’s films. For, it actually became the soul of the film as Leone would often structure his film keeping Morricone’s score in his mind. A Fistful of Dollars, the first part of the ‘Dollors Trilogy’, released in Italy in 1964 and was released in America three years later. It popularized what became known as the Spaghetti Western genre. Interestingly, for the American releases, Ennio Morricone would often adopt Anglicized pseudonyms such as Dan Savio and Leo Nichols.

Speaking of the Spaghetti Western genre, Morricone’s scores for A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and The Great Silence are all truly masterful. But, Leone attained a certain consummation with his score for Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Morricone's plaintive score is the heart and soul of the film. The score has shades of melancholy, intrigue, and romance that become more and more obvious with each passing moment. The music features leitmotifs (a melodic phrase that accompanies the reappearance of a character) that relate to each of the main characters (each with their own unique theme music). But what he achieves with the film’s opening scene is truly remarkable. Leone’s soundtrack to the opening scene is a symphonic orchestration of quotidian sounds like that of the dripping water, the clicking of a telegraph, the buzzing sound of a fly, the screeching sound of a windmill, etc. Morricone is said to have experienced a symphony being created by the medley of these distinct sounds and the rest is history.

Morricone would also collaborate with Leone on his final two films, Duck, You Sucker aka A Fistful of Dyanmite and Once Upon a Time in America. For the former, Morricone wrote another mesmerizing score which very much forms the backbone of the movie. The film’s score is not only poignant but it also oozes with a strong nostalgia which works perfectly well for the flashback scenes. One needs to watch the film to truly appreciate how Morricone’s music elevates Leoene’s powerful imagery. Speaking of their final collaboration, Morricone’s score once again managed to capture the essence of film. Once Upon a Time in America poignantly explores the themes of love, lust, friendship, greed, betrayal, and loss of innocence against the backdrop of the 20th century America. Morricone’s masterful score allowed Leone’s to completely unleash his cinematic genius on the celluloid unlike never before, giving the film a rare operatic operatic quality. The credit, however, must also go to the master Romanian pan flute player Georghe Zamfir for his incredible work on Cockeye's Song.   

While one can go on and on talking about Morricone’s legendary work, it is important to talk about his collaboration with Quentin Tarantino that finally won the maestro an Academy Award. Now, Tarantino had often been using bits of Morricone’s music in several of his films (with the maestro’s permission of course), but, apparently, the master composer wasn’t too pleased with how Tarantino would chop and churn his musical pieces to the needs of his films. However, he agreed to write an original film score for Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, for which Morricone went on to win an Academy Award. “When I got together with him he actually was busy at the time. So he thought he would only be able to write the theme. Once he started writing that theme he got inspired and started writing more and more. This movie has a personality that none of my other movies have. It’s because of the organic personality of that score which is not only a Western movie score. It’s more like a Horror film score. And that actually was very appropriate for the movie,” explained Tarantino.

Given the tremendous scope of his work and its remarkable influence, Morricone was arguably the greatest motion picture composer of all time. Perhaps, no compliment does greater justice to the seminal nature of maestro’s work than the following remarks by filmmaker Edgar Wright: “He could make an average movie into a must see, a good movie into art, and a great movie into legend. He hasn't been off my stereo my entire life. What a legacy of work he leaves behind.”

A version of this article was first published in Transcontinental Times.

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