I can’t be sure when I first heard the music of Ennio Morricone – it’s possible that I was hearing his film scores without realising who he was. That’s very possible given the hundreds of movies he’s scored. But at some point the name started to resonate – it was referenced. Bands that I listened to mentioned this great composer and I heard this piece of music from one of his most famous film scores – The Mission – and that was me hooked. On a quest…
The composer’s name and the music matched up – I was off to find all the other matches.
It’s funny that Morricone is known – still – for the Spaghetti Western soundtracks, they would only make up about ten percent of his output. This is something I had never really thought of until I watched the film Morricone: A Documentary – it’s available as part of the double-pack DVD with the 2004 live concert Morricone Conducts Morricone.
Watching the concert and then the documentary I started to think back to all the films I had watched because Morricone had scored them. Some good – others flat out terrible, but the music was always a feature. It might have been the only reason to watch Wolf – the Jack Nicholson ham-fest. And it was part of the magic of the taut thriller, In The Line Of Fire.
Memorable scores beyond The Mission and the Leone films (including the “reunion”, Once Upon A Time In America) include Cinema Paradiso, Casualties Of War, John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Untouchables.
But there are so many more.
The Spaghetti Westerns stand out because the music is bold – filling space in movies where the dialogue is often kept to a minimum. Sweeping epics, with sweeping, epic music to accompany; the soundtracks to the Spaghetti Westerns are Morricone’s calling card. They were how he made his name on the back of his early reputation working for television and as a performing musician, arranger, songwriter and conductor. In that sense it is then easy to understand why they are still referenced, still the first (obvious) thing to link with the name Morricone.
More recently he recorded an album with Hayley Westenra. Where I had previously had little interest in Westenra as a performer I was curious about Paradiso. I had to hear it. I loved it – Hayley was great. And of course Morricone’s pieces – including new arrangements of some of his legendary film scores – were resplendent. He conducted the orchestra and whilst it was a genius-stroke marketing-wise: lend gravitas to Hayley with a living-legend and allow Morricone a shot at a new audience, I never felt it was just about that conceit, that manipulation. It felt sincere. And I had no real reason to get on board. I’d never really been a fan of Westenra and I could have listened to any of the Morricone compilations or soundtracks/suites that I had without Hayley.
And then I interviewed her. It was clear she was full of respect for Morricone. She kept referring to him as “the Maestro” – the correct title – but there was something about the way Westenra constantly spoke of him, using only this title. She never thought to call him Mr Morricone, or Ennio, he was the Maestro, the master. He had been her teacher and, she told me, “a tough taskmaster” but it had been one of the most rewarding musical experiences of her life. Understandably.
The documentary is a brief (54 minutes) survey of Morricone’s film composing career – with just enough background – but it’s worth checking out if you have a passing interest in this musical giant.
I was most blown away by the work ethic – the commitment to the various projects. I thought also of how well his music travels, how lasting it is. And then there’s his precision – you see this in action with the Maestro conducting his own charts of his own pieces, leading the orchestra.
The Mission’s score is a character in the movie. The Legend of 1900 is another example of the music being crucial – being something beyond a set of by-rote cues. Most recently his music for Tarantino’s The Hateful 8 was a huge selling point/impact-point of that movie. For me anyway. I’m sure plenty of other cinema-goers at least felt the power/subtlety of that score.
Morricone’s music has – for me – transcended being simply soundtrack music. You can hear his films scores without seeing the film. You hear them differently after seeing the film.
You hear his influence across a range of jazz, contemporary classical and rock music projects. John Zorn has covered Morricone, interpreting some of the works in his way. The members of Mr. Bungle are huge fans. Even Muse, apparently, reach for Morricone’s name as an influence on their musical career.
Well we can’t hold the Maestro accountable for everyone and everything he’s influenced.
But we can celebrate his work while he’s still living. And that’s all I was thinking about when I set out to write this after enjoying the concert and documentary DVDs. They were a reminder to me, a musical quest that won’t end any time soon. I’ll be rifling through the records this week to find more scores from several years ago; albums I’ve played and others I’ve stockpiled – time now to find the magic within the grooves.
He’s 83 years old. And he has been a towering influence. There’s still so much he’s already done that is still there for discovery.
I’ve returned to the Untouchables score – a favourite. I bought the LP many years ago for $1, something like that. A bargain. It’s given me a lot of joy.
And I still play that double compilation album regularly. Every time I’ve played it when we’ve had visitors someone has asked about it; it’s not music that goes unnoticed. That might not necessarily be the absolute goal for a film composer – as it’s about enhancing, about adding to the scene rather than dominating and therefore taking away but I do love that Morricone’s music can be played outside and away from the context of the film – creating a new context if you will.
The Maestro indeed.