LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - There aren’t many composers whose music is immediately identifiable after just a couple of whistled notes.
Such is the influence of Ennio Morricone that all it takes is a bit of whistling to evoke the Italian composer’s masterful, genre-defying work on the spaghetti westerns he scored for Sergio Leone — films such as 1967’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Those oft-imitated, never-equaled scores would be sparkling highlights on any composer’s list of credits, but in a career that spans almost 50 years and some 500 film and TV scores, Morricone’s formidable talent has been applied to an astonishing breadth of work. He has created romantic, near-operatic scores for films such as 1990’s “Cinema Paradiso” from Giuseppe Tornatore and Adrian Lyne’s 1998 remake of “Lolita” and has imparted a stunning blend of epic grandeur and sublime melancholy to such films as Leone’s 1984 crime epic “Once Upon a Time in America” and the landmark verite 1967 war film “The Battle of Algiers.” And he’s written brilliant, often counterintuitive scores to movies that range from the dark satire of 1998’s “Bulworth” from Warren Beatty to the baroque horror films of Dario Argento, including the 1996 production “The Stendhal Syndrome.”
This year, Morricone’s work is being recognized, appreciated and celebrated in a number of significant ways. First and foremost, he is set to receive an honorary Academy Award at Sunday’s ceremony. It will be Morricone’s first Oscar, though he has been previously nominated five times, for his scores for 1978’s “Days of Heaven” from Terrence Malick, 1986’s “The Mission” from Roland Joffe, 1987’s “The Untouchables” from Brian De Palma, 1991’s “Bugsy” from Barry Levinson and, most recently, for Tornatore’s “Malena” in 2001.
Morricone, who has conducted concert performances of his work in European venues over the years, recently made his long-anticipated American concert debut, leading the 100-piece Roma Sinfonietta orchestra and a full choir during a February concert at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. He also led a performance of his September 11-inspired cantata “Voci dal Silencio” (Voices From the Silence) during a United Nations concert honoring incoming Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He has recently been feted with a retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and also is being paid tribute with the recent release of an album from Sony Classical, “We All Love Ennio Morricone,” which features performances from such varied artists as Renee Fleming, Herbie Hancock, Bruce Springsteen and Metallica (the metal band isn’t included simply as a novelty — the members are big enough fans that they use Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” as intro music at their concerts).
The title of that album does not appear to be an overstatement. While Morricone’s music encompasses a great stylistic range and the movies he has scored represent virtually every genre of film, one constant throughout his career has been the respect and esteem of both filmmakers with whom he has worked and filmmakers who appreciate the artistry he brings to a director’s creative vision.
“My favorite Morricone scores are ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (for the 1969 film of the same name), ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ and ‘The Mission,’” Steven Spielberg says. “What I really like about him is he’s not afraid of a pretty melody.”
“He reinvented movie music,” Martin Scorsese adds. “He was very different from the classic film composers out of Hollywood at the time — (Jerry) Goldsmith, (Elmer) Bernstein, (Bernard) Herrmann. Morricone’s sound was new and bold, a cross between European and American music in the same way that ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ which Morricone scored, tapped into the Japanese filmmaking sensibility as a remake of (Akira) Kurosawa’s (1961 film) ‘Yojimbo.’”
Among fellow composers, Morricone is not only considered a master of the craft but one of the most daring of musicmakers for his ability to blend seemingly disparate musical elements into cohesive scores. In his earliest films with Leone, Morricone began to combine traditional orchestral notions of composition with an embrace of the experimental and was one of the first composers to make sounds as much a part of his scores as notes: Cannon fire, creaks, gunshots, howls, rumbles, screams, out-of-tune vocals, twanging electric guitars, skittery electronics and junkyard percussion have all been used as effective elements in his compositions.
“His work is melodic yet has a great sense of humor,” Scorsese notes. “‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ takes film music into the realm of opera because his music does draw on (Giacomo) Puccini and (Giuseppe) Verdi and mixes that with American, Western and even Mexican music. It’s pretty wild stuff. And he even used sound effects — whistles and things. He’s a truly remarkable figure.”
Although the Rome-based composer speaks only Italian, his work and reputation have made him a mentor at large for contemporary Hollywood composers. “He is so rooted in (Johann Sebastian) Bach and (Johannes) Brahms and the masters of composition,” says Hans Zimmer, who ranks “March of the Beggars” from the 1971 Leone production “Duck, You Sucker” as a favorite Morricone piece. “But he’s also willing to break every rule, and he’s open to using all kinds of ideas from the avant-garde. I think one of the true marks of a great composer is the ability to create something that absolutely shouldn’t work according to the rules of composition but ends up working beautifully. You find those moments again and again in Ennio’s work. And he has created a tremendous range of music, but it’s all pulled together by a personal point of view, which is without question the hardest thing for a composer to come by.”
A particularly high compliment was paid Morricone by director John Carpenter when he asked the composer to score his 1982 remake of “The Thing.” Carpenter is an accomplished composer in his own right and has penned highly effective scores for almost all the films he has directed, including such hits as 1978’s “Halloween” and 1981’s “Escape From New York.” But he happily accepted the opportunity to turn musical responsibilities for “Thing” over to Morricone, who created a particularly chilling and ominous electronics-driven score for the film. Carpenter puts his respect for the composer in no uncertain terms: “Ennio Morricone is one of the five greatest, most influential composers in the history of the cinema.”
While Morricone has been a musical visionary throughout his career, his method is decidedly old school. Not only does the composer work without benefit of synthesizers, sequencers, Pro Tools rigs or any kind of computer setup in his home studio, he doesn’t even sit at a piano to work. Instead, he continues to create scores the way he has for so many years, sitting at a writing desk with a pencil and a stack of blank scoring sheets, painstakingly transcribing the music he imagines. He doesn’t write compositional sketches that might require orchestrators or arrangers for a final polish; he writes complete and detailed scores and has almost always conducted them himself during scoring sessions.
That sort of mental-musical acuity made a powerful impression on Zimmer during an afternoon he spent with Morricone several years ago. “I got a chance to spend a day with him in (Bonn, Germany), at (Ludwig van) Beethoven’s house, and we had the chance to look at some original manuscripts,” Zimmer recalls. “I think we were both trying to act appropriately humbled, but he has such a fantastic musical mind that he was actually reading the music and saying things like, ‘Hmm, I wonder why he inverted that phrase here.’ I was looking at the same sheets and thinking, ‘What messy handwriting.’”
Morricone’s legacy is firmly established not only by his past works but by his continuing cultural resonance: Zimmer says it was a mutual admiration for Morricone’s work that bonded him to director Gore Verbinski and opened the doors for their creative collaborations on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Quentin Tarantino used several Morricone themes and songs in his pair of “Kill Bill” (2003-04) films. Punk stalwarts the Ramones were fond of opening concerts with the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” NBC Sports has used the theme from “Untouchables” during baseball broadcasts. And, in a wonderful example of the sublime underscoring the ridiculous, Morricone music was featured on the soundtrack to 2006’s “Jackass Number Two.”
Despite his prodigious output and the numerous honors coming his way, Morricone remains resolutely modest. As he recently told the New York Times: “The notion that I am a composer who writes a lot of things is true on one hand and not true on the other hand. Maybe my time is better organized than many other people’s. But compared to classical composers like Bach, (Girolamo) Frescobaldi, (Giovanni Perluigi da) Palestrina or (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed.”