Biography of Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone is one of the most eclectic and prolific film composers in the entire history of the genre. He began composing scores for Italian westerns (often called “spaghetti westerns”) in the 1960s, and over the course of his career has created soundtracks for over 400 films and television productions released in English, Italian, German, and French. In addition to westerns, he has composed highly melodic scores for mystery thrillers, romantic dramas, comedies, and epics, including The Untouchables, La Cage aux Folles, The Mission, and Disclosure.

Composer Ennio MorriconeIn an interview with Fred Karlin, author of Listening to Movies, Morricone discussed his humble beginnings, stating, “My first films were light comedies or costume movies that required simple musical scores that were easily created, a genre that I never completely abandoned even when I went on to much more important films with major directors.”

Yet these “simple musical scores” were inherently ingenious, immediately setting Morricone apart from his contemporaries. The compositions were marked by a blend of rock, jazz, folk, blues, classical music, and “found” sounds–birdcalls, gunshots, footsteps, the lash of a whip, rolling baby carriages, animal noises, and, most notably, the human whistle. Writing for the Village Voice in 1986, Peter Watrous remarked, “[Morricone] has an acute sense for sound, and if it means using lower-class instruments — electric guitars, cheezo keyboards — to gain a specific effect, he’ll do it.” Morricone’s work with director Sergio Leone on the classic 1960s “man with no name” trilogy vaulted both Morricone and actor Clint Eastwood to instant cult stardom. In scores for A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Morricone mirrored the violence, irony, and campy humor pervading the classic Eastwood westerns.

Though westerns established Morricone as a “name” in the film-score business, his work with major directors such as Franco Zeffirelli, Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, and Roland Joffe put him on par with composers like John Williams, the man who dominated film music in the 1980s with the memorable themes to Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Wars.

In the 1990s, roughly a quarter-century after he first attained prominence, moviegoers would be moved by Morricone’s dramatic swells in big-screen epics such as City of Joy, and startled by his jagged strings in thrillers like Wolf. “Morricone, in short, is a postmodernist,” wrote Harlan Kennedy in a 1991 interview in American Film. “Every acoustic gewgaw is grist for his mill; every period of musical history may be ransacked for inspiration. No wonder that in the 1990s, at the peak of his form, he’s become the musical general in the Italian invasion of American cinema.” Still, Morricone is loath to define himself in any category of film composers. He said in American Film, “I can’t classify myself. Others must do it. Others, if they wish, can analyze my works.”

Born in Rome in 1928, Morricone started writing music at the age of six. He holds diplomas in composition, trombone, and orchestra direction from the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, and he long played trombone there with a local music group called Nuova Consonanza. Along with his classical compositions, he has composed a ballet (Requiem for Destiny) but little other non-film music. His first full-length film composition was for Luciano Salce’s Il federale (The Fascist) in 1961, though his fame was not established until Leone’s mid-1960s trilogy and 1968′s Once upon a Time in the West, perhaps Morricone’s best-known score.

Morricone has often described his music as being about the pain inside a character. He told American Film contributor Kennedy that the screams, whistles, bells, and whips used in the “man with no name” trilogy were essential because they underlined the quirks of the character played by Eastwood. “I do only what I think is correct,” he said. “A composer has the obligation to ‘invent and capture’ noises, the musical sounds of life.”

Perhaps Morricone’s most famous single “invention” was the theme song for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which topped the American charts after it was borrowed and slightly altered by Hugo Montenegro — a slight that still irritates the composer. And though he writes almost exclusively for events onscreen, Morricone’s soundtracks have endured on their own when released separately, often topping album charts.

Director Leone once told Kennedy that in the beginning of their collaboration, he would invite Morricone to his house and have him work on a piano that was out of tune, because “if a score is good, it must rise above a bad instrument.” For the most part, Morricone begins his work on a film score by consulting the director about problem spots in the film and suggesting musical solutions. Only after this collaboration takes place does Morricone begin his work with an orchestra. Watrous explained of Morricone’s signature style, “Where Morricone comments on the action, it’s wildly imaginative kitsch…. Even without the visuals, the soundtracks are perfectly formed, if small, bits of music reeking sleaze.” This down-and-dirty aspect of his work has attracted a devoted following among other musicians, including experimentalist John Zorn, who made his own “cover” versions of some of Morricone’s work in the 1980s.

Despite the suggestion that Morricone’s music needs no visual accompaniment, the composer told Listening to Movies author Karlin, “Actually, people are little concerned with the musical element if they are watching a film, except when the music is … particularly emphasized.” In fact, Morricone is usually brought in only after a film is completed. Because at this point it is effectively too late to alter the look of the film, some directors rely on the score to smooth over any weak points in the drama. Many films depend heavily on music to establish suspense, for example. Ultimately, the composer is confronted with having his score cut to fit precise moments of the film. (To counter this, Morricone has become active in the release of his works as they were initially conceived, personally overseeing the musical selection and arrangements.)

Musically enhanced cinematic moments, nonetheless, can carry a film. In a 1992 review of the movie Bugsy, an Entertainment Weekly reviewer stated, “Morricone achieves something here that [very few] even try: music that’s as integral to the movie’s very conception as the dialogue, camera work, and performances.” In American Film, Morricone supported this statement by insisting that music in a film add depth to the story and characters; it must “say all that the dialogue, images, effects, etc., cannot say.”

If Morricone has a weakness, it is his incredible productivity, which inevitably leads to the occasionally listless score; this was the critical consensus about his work on the generally forgettable films So Fine, Butterfly, and The Thing. Writing for Melody Maker, Frank Owen found the soundtrack to The Mission “just plain dull.”

Rising at five every morning, Morricone locks himself in his room to keep from becoming distracted by the hubbub of his Italian household. Alluding to Morricone’s massive body of work, Kennedy asked the composer, who often publishes music under the pseudonym Loe Nichols or Nicola Piovanti, if he ever grows weary of scoring film after film. To this Morricone responded, “I’m not tired of writing music. It’s the only thing that I know how to do.”

Indeed, Morricone hardly slowed down at all as he entered his eighth decade of life, remaining active on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He showed his range by writing the score for actor-director Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth, and also rejoined Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore in 1998 for The Legend of 1900. Morricone’s score for Tornatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso has remained one of his most beloved, and the new score was hailed for its musical-historical accuracy and for the research its composer had put into the enterprise.

Tornatore and Morricone teamed up once more in 2000 for the Italian melodrama Malena, whose score brought Morricone his fifth Academy Award nomination to go with a host of other cinematic awards. The first four were for Days of Heaven (1978), The Mission (1986), The Untouchables (1987), and Bugsy (1991). To go with these formal accolades, Morricone notched a more modern kind of honor in 2002 when a group of dance music DJs issued an album, Morricone RMX, devoted to remixes of music from his film scores. A similar effort, Ennio Morricone Remixes, appeared on the German label Compost the following year. “I am honored and surprised that this happens,” Morricone told London’s Independent newspaper.

Morricone continued writing classical music as well, although it was more often heard in Europe than in the United States. Major validation of his music came from the classical world in 2004, when best-selling cellist Yo-Yo Ma recorded an album of arrangements of Morricone’s film music. The 76-year-old composer arranged and conducted the music for the album himself. Asked by the London Sunday Telegraph to look back on his career, Morricone pronounced himself “satisfied with what I’ve done. But I still think I can improve. You can always do better, you know.”

by Sarah Messer and James M. Manheim

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