By Ali Moosavi.
He was someone that just had this constant flow, this constant rhythm of work….”
The music of no other film composer is as recognizable worldwide as that of Ennio Morricone. Just whistle the first few bars of the opening themes for A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More or let out the famous shriek of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and most people immediately recognize them. Of course, Morricone is best known for his work with Sergio Leone, which in addition to the Dollars trilogy, also produced immortal music for Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Morricone’s music for these movies, and many other ones, can be listened on its own, immediately evoking images from those movies.
Morricone also had a long and fruitful relationship with Giuseppe Tornatore, starting with Cinema Paradiso in 1988 and continuing for all the 13 films that Tornatore made after that until Morricone’s death in 2020. Tornatore has made a loving portrait of Morricone in his documentary about the master, Ennio (2021). It includes a long interview with Morricone in which he talks about his life and career. The interview is intercepted with clips from his music in the movies, archival material showing him at various stages of his life and career and tributary comments from friends, colleagues, directors, and a very diverse group of musicians, from Hans Zimmer to Quincy Jones, from Bruce Springsteen to James Hetfield.
Morricone composed music for over 500 movies, a staggering number. One new fact that I learned from this documentary was that he also arranged and composed many of the old classic Italian pop songs! Many musicians have rebelled against their family who wanted them to become a doctor or a lawyer or choose any other safe and respectable career, instead of music. However, for Morricone the reverse was true. He wanted to study medicine but his father, who was a professional trumpet player, told him that he must study music and become a trumpet player. Morricone says that after his father’s health declined, he had to play trumpet to feed the family and it was humiliating for him. When he started composing music for films, initially he found that work also humiliating and was mocked by his fellow composers.
Morricone expresses a few regrets. One is that Sergio Leone prevented him from accepting Stanley Kubrick’s offer to compose the music for A Clockwork Orange. He also expresses a little bitterness over his continuous snubbing by the Oscars. After five unsuccessful nominations, and 30 years, he was given an honorary Oscar in 2007 but he did finally win the film music Oscar in 2016 for The Hateful Eight. One case which particularly bothered him was the 1987 Oscar going to Herbie Hancock for Round Midnight (Morricone was nominated for The Mission). Morricone says that half the music in Round Midnight was existing jazz standards. David Puttnam, who produced The Mission, says that by giving Morricone an honorary Oscar, the Academy was kind of apologizing for having ignored him for so long. Perhaps my favourite quote in Ennio is when, talking about Morricone’s music for films, someone says, “Music was the dialogue in the movies”.
I spoke to Giuseppe Tornatore through an interpreter about his long-lasting working relationship with Morricone.
According to your film Ennio, it was the producer of Cinema Paradiso, Franco Cristaldi who approached Morricone to compose the music for that film. You were not well-known then and he was world famous. What was your reaction when he accepted?
Yes, Cristaldi approached Morricone because he had worked with him before and knew him. Morricone first rejected his offer but Cristaldi asked him to read the script. Then one day I got a phone call from Ennio saying that he will do my picture. I shook with excitement and disbelief. It was an honour and it was wonderful working with him. He was a great man and though I was just starting, he treated me as an equal.
Sometimes he would see a script and he would become so enthusiastic that he would write the musical compositions for that film before knowing whether or not there was going to be any financing.”
After Cinema Paradiso he composed the music for all your films, 13 in 28 years. In Ennio you say that when you were writing the script for The Legend of 1900, he was composing the music for it at the same time. How was your working relationship?
In that particular film while I was writing the script, I would meet with him regularly and talk about what I was doing and then that would give him ideas for the music. But also his ideas for the music somehow were very fertile for me in my own writing process. So there was this sort of cross fertilization between the two of us that his musical ideas could contribute to my screen writing and my screen writing could contribute to his musical ideas. But in the case of The Legend of 1900 this collaboration was particularly fruitful, I think much more than in the other films where we worked together, because the film was about a piano player. In the other films that we worked together I would usually show him the finished script and from that he would then come up with his ideas for the music, the arias and stuff that he might to do.
Morricone composed for over 500 movies, which is an incredible number. You worked with him for almost 30 years. What was his work ethic? How did he get all the energy and inspiration to compose for so many movies?
You know, in addition to those 500 films for which he wrote the soundtracks, there were many films that were never made; sometimes he would see a script and he would become so enthusiastic that he would write the musical compositions for that film before knowing whether or not there was going to be any financing. And for every musical theme that was needed, he would propose 3 or 4 to me, I would choose one, and then he would just throw away the others. So he was someone that just had this constant flow, this constant rhythm of work. It was the way he worked. When we were making a film, for example, he would combine his musical ideas with that film. He would allow that film to inspire his own compositional process and that compositional flow would then marry together with the film. And when there wasn’t a film being made, he was still composing all the time. Whether it was music for a film, whether it was classical music, whether it was it a pop song or something, it was just innate to the person who he was. This was not a strategy. This was not a technique. This was just the way that he was. When he would do the soundtrack for a film, he would just sit there in the dark and take notes while he watched the film. And those notes then became the basis for the compositions that he would do. He was just stimulated by everything that he saw and everything that he sensed around himself. This, I think was a unique characteristic of him as a composer.
Morricone used sound effects, whistles, unusual instruments such as Jew’s Harp, pan pipes, in his compositions. Would you say he was the most innovative composer that you know of?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he was the greatest musical innovator of all time. It’s kind of too big a statement. And I don’t think Morricone himself would accept something like that. I mean comparing him to someone like Bach, for example, who had an unquestionable innovative style. But what I would say is that I think he was certainly one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century in making popular music more elevated and bringing it to a higher or cultivated level and bringing a cultivated type of classical music and making it more accessible to a broader public. I think he was one of the first that did this. He was also an arranger of pop songs at first, but within those arrangements he would introduce some very high concepts about music. And he brought this same sensibility to his compositions for the orchestra, to his great classical music compositions, which as he composed, he also kept in mind the taste and the ability of a much broader public to appreciate things. So he was certainly one of the greats of the 20th century, and maybe it’s because of my limited musical knowledge that I wouldn’t make a bigger statement about him being an all-time innovator.
Morricone first became well known with the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. And at the time, those westerns were not taken seriously. They were looked upon as a joke. Critics said this is not the real western, the American western is the real deal. Do you think that hurt him and he was not taken very seriously for a long time.
It’s true. These films, the spaghetti Westerns, were huge box office successes. But the critics just thought of them as big popular films for a broader public and from this point of view, Ennio Morricone was associated then with a kind of music for a broad consumption. And this was the initial judgment of the academics, scholars and critics. It took time for people to understand that even music for films that were considered sort of B films in a way, behind them was hidden really great musical innovation and great musical challenges that Ennio Morricone met.
It seems that this prejudice or looking down at him persisted in US more than, for example, in the UK. It took him 37 years and six nominations after his first nomination to finally get an original score Oscar. Whereas in the UK, he was nominated 6 times for the Baftas and he won every time! including once for Cinema Paradiso. Do you think that this prejudice was because the spaghetti westerns more or less killed the American western, albeit temporarily?
(Laughs) That’s a very good question. I don’t know quite how to answer it and whether that American prejudice was more lasting than in other places because of the very popular films. But I would point out that these spaghetti Westerns, these films of Sergio Leone were from the start also very, very popular in America. But I think maybe it’s just chance. When a film score is nominated for a prize, there’s a whole context of particular directors, particular situations, American producers who have much more power in the market than Italian producers and films coming from abroad in the United States. It might lead to a greater attention then to these American films or other films. But having said this, I think that Ennio’s talent has been recognized everywhere and yes, more credit to the British for recognizing him so early, but I think he was also very well loved in America and he was considered from the start as one of the greats, both for his classical music and for his film music, but especially for the film music. But there is something that he did there that really makes him a first. I think he completely revolutionized the approach to film music. So there’s a kind of surprise in what he did with it, and maybe that led to the delayed recognition from the Academy. And when the Oscar did come, it was an honorary Oscar for his career. But you know, I think it sort of went beyond the recognition of his career. I think that there was a kind of attempt to rebalance things, to express gratitude for everything that he had done. And in a certain sense, an apology for having neglected him so long, as the producer of The Mission himself said. But you know, as they say, in history, you know, I’m not sure how we say this in English, we use the agricultural expression! Perhaps akin to chicken is coming home to roost.
Various people in your documentary describe Morricone as enigmatic, serious, genius. If you had to describe Morricone in one word, what would it be?
Unconscious genius. Two words!
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).