Film

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Ennio Morricone scored hundreds of films, writing music that worked in concert with the directors’ vision. By Christos Tsiolkas.

A tribute to a great composer

Composer Ennio Morricone conducting a concert at the Barbican, London, in 2001.
Credit: Robin Little / Redferns

The western film was one of the cultural items of my growing up that bonded us as a family. To ensure that my memory isn’t playing me false, and that my mother’s enjoyment was genuine and that she wasn’t forced to watch the westerns under duress, outvoted by the tastes of her husband and two sons, I give her a call and ask her about her favourite movie stars. She adores the Elizabeth Taylor of Giant and A Place in the Sun, the chic of Grace Kelly and the unapologetic sensuality of Sophia Loren. Of the men, she mentions Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper. “How about John Wayne?” I tease. “Of course,” she says, and then adds, “He was always good but not as attractive as the others.” There’s a pause on the phone. She’s trying to think of another actor; his name has escaped her. She starts describing an old movie she loved, and it is the plot to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. “Clint Eastwood?” I ask. A long wistful sigh. “Yes,” she says. “Now that’s a man.”

I confess that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was never one of my favourite westerns as a child. But I rewatched Leone’s The Man with No Name trilogy recently, and I was reminded of why the western was of such importance in our house. The heroes of the western are taciturn and largely silent. Narrative has to be conveyed as much by the framing and the editing as it is by dialogue. My parents could watch the westerns without the cumbersome intrusion of asking us children to constantly translate the conversation for them.

Leone, an Italian filmmaker taking on the western, the most singular and iconic of Hollywood genres, strips dialogue to its barest minimum. He crafts movies featuring operatic and visually splendid set pieces that play with the most archaic themes of oral storytelling: vengeance and greed; loyalty and distrust. Watching the trilogy again I was struck by how Ennio Morricone’s music is integral to Leone’s intent. The scores to all three films – A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – have become so much part of popular culture, and so often parodied, that in hearing them isolated from the films they can be easily mocked. That cheesy electric thrumming wah-wah! Yet, denied a budget for a full orchestra, Morricone used sound effects and an electric guitar to create a score that seemed to have a magnificent symphonic depth. And it was genuinely unsettling. I suspect that is one of the reasons I resisted the films as a child. They scared me for they were more sinister than the Hollywood western. There was real evil in this trilogy. It took Italians to lay bare what was the subterranean truth of the genre: that at the core of the western hero was a rapacious lust for land.

So, Morricone’s scores are indelibly part of my childhood, but the first movie that alerted me to his greatness as a composer was Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. When the film came out in Melbourne in 1979, I was in the middle of high school, and it is still one of the most revelatory of my early film experiences. Though Malick is a very different filmmaker from Leone, more elliptical and more consciously poetic, that film, too, grafts ancient tragic tropes to a simple story of love and revenge. But it isn’t the story that blew me away. It was that Malick created magisterial scenes out of the work of farmers and labourers in the Texas Panhandle. Unlike the blockbusters set in galaxies far, far away, beauty was found in work and in landscapes here on Earth. Central to this was Morricone’s elegiac score, which perfectly complemented these visual sequences. The work of filmmaker and composer is a wonderful collaboration in Days of Heaven, visually and sonically working towards the same coherent goal.

I saw Days of Heaven on a Saturday, and on the following Monday I dropped in to the newsagent on the way home from school and noticed in the cinema listings that the film was screening for only a few more days. The next day I wagged school for the first time, nervously took the train into the city and watched the film again.

Every film lover will have their own take on Morricone; we will have our own individual perfect Morricone score. He composed across so many film genres and worked in Hollywood and Europe for more than 60 years. Among my musician friends, one will argue for the innovation of his work in the westerns, another for the sublime terror of his horror scores and yet another for the orchestral heft of his score for Roland Joffé’s The Mission or for Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America.

On hearing the news of Morricone’s death, I did as we all do now – I googled him. He was the composer on two of my favourite films of all time, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. They are two vastly different films, with two very distinct soundtracks, the former jittery and exciting and the latter melancholic and sweeping. I was reminded that part of Morricone’s phenomenal talent was his grace in collaboration.

I have many of Morricone’s scores on CD and digital, but I have only two on vinyl. The first is his joyful score for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1966 film The Hawks and the Sparrows. Possibly the most lighthearted film that Pasolini made, the music is also the most cheerful score that Morricone composed. Again, he is generous in the work he is doing with a fellow artist.

The other Morricone album I have on vinyl is the soundtrack to Days of Heaven. I had saved up and bought it in 1979. The other night, in honour of Morricone, I played from that record on a music show I co-host on community radio station 3RRR. I chose the lilting piece titled “Harvest”. The track started to play, and you could hear the crackle and spit of the old vinyl record. I realised I had diligently carried that record with me, from home to home to home, for more than 40 years now. Every time I play it I am moved by it, and every time I play it I enter the memory of the glorious visual sweep of that film.

Grazie, Signore Morricone, mille grazie.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "High scores".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Christos Tsiolkas
is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.