The world, in a state of turmoil for the past several years, had one more shovelful of dirt tossed over the coffin of entertainment with the passing of the superb Ennio Morricone (1928-2020). Morricone, best known for his work in the Italo-Western (or “Spaghetti”) genre, was a talent who transcended the genre, making his mark on popular culture with hits that not only became staples anyone could whistle, but put that same skill to use in horror, gangster films, and the medium as a whole.
Leone first came to prominence in our pop culture with Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, featuring Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in a loose series of movies. Morricone created sparse, weird soundscapes evoking the sere deserts the films were set in. Choirs and whistling backed the hard men whose faces eclipsed the screens, and the adventures and violence they embarked on, gunning each other down as soon as look at each other. It was not only a new eye on the Western genre itself, but a new ear on the sound of Western as a whole.
Often credited with inventing the Western soundtrack, the truth is that Morricone re-invented it. Western soundtracks can be really delineated into Before and After Morricone periods. Up until he came on the scene, Westerns had luscious soundtracks full of brassy horns and rolling drums like the thunder on the big sky prairies the movies were set in. Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven is a perfect example of the larger than life soundscape the genre had up until the Italo-Western came onto the scene. On the other end of the spectrum, after the first lonely whistles and bell peals of Morricone’s theme for A Fistful of Dollars, the genre would never be the same. By the time his driving, choral “Ecstasy of Gold” played over the final cemetery confrontation in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, his mark was indelible. There wouldn’t be a person in the world unfamiliar with his music.
Besides his other collaborations with Leone (and another Sergio, Corbucci, who made acidic bullets to the heart with films like The Great Silence), Hollywood had taken notice. While Morricone toiled away in the Italian cinema as it churned out genre piece after genre piece, his music often outstripped the movies he scored — though not all were bad. Death Rides a Horse is another dark, wonderful movie with a delicious Morricone soundtrack. His total number of scores is in the realm of over 550 pieces. But even if he wasn’t doing mainstream Hollywood work just yet, Hollywood’s biggies at the time like Sam Peckinpah were having Morricone-alike scores created for films like The Wild Bunch.
Don Siegel, attempting to recreate the Spaghetti success of newly-minted megastar Clint Eastwood for wholly American audiences, recruited Morricone to score Two Mules For Sister Sara which Morricone did with gusto, using electronic sounds to create a buzzing, twangy soundtrack complete with hee-haws to echo those mules. As a minor piece of a major career, it alone has seen usage in the recent movies Django Unchained and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.1
From there, Morricone became a Hollywood player, which led to him branching out from the Western genre. He first turned to horror with the soundtrack to The Exorcist II, which like much of his 60s Italian work, far surpassed the movie it was made for. Where he really proved himself was with John Carpenter’s 1982 horror all-timer, The Thing. Morricone not only provided another creepy, sparse, electronic soundscape for hard men killing each other in the Antarctic wastes (rather than the Western desert), but he also proved he could play in other people’s wheelhouses, crafting a score that was as Carpenter-ish as anything Carpenter himself ever produced.
Once the 1980s really got started, Morricone also came into the gangster genre in a big way. He scored his friend Sergio Leone’s final movie, the gangster epic — and for my money, better than The Godfather — Once Upon A Time In America. From there he went on to score Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, finally giving the property (based on the 1960s Robert Stack TV series) a proper theme. After that came the Warren Beatty-starring Bugsy in 1991.
During this whole time he hadn’t given up on his home country or the industry where he’d gotten his start. Scoring over a dozen movies a year for decades, Morricone lent his practiced ear to seemingly whoever offered him a challenge and when there wasn’t one would challenge himself. In doing so he not only re-defined genres, but left his signature on others as much as any other Hollywood composer had. Morricone’s legacy is such that his music has been taken by popular culture, re-adapted for advertisements, for other shows and films, and used so often that even if someone was unfamiliar with any directly scored film he was a part of, they still know his work. And there’s one more thing any audience member who knows Morricone knows for certain: his work was always good—never bad and certainly never ugly.
- Morricone would finally go on to win an “I’m sorry we ignored your entire career” Oscar for his original score on another Quentin Tarantino Western, The Hateful Eight.