Ennio Morricone: The Italian Icon
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Italian film composer Ennio Morricone once told the British newspaper The Guardian about an offer he received from a Hollywood film studio, one intended to lure him to the United States. “They said they would give me a villa,” he recalled, and you can hear a little barb in his response. “I told them I liked it in Italy, and there was no need to leave Rome, because I only speak with the director about the score, not the studio.”
Given his self-assurance — he didn’t bother to learn English — it’s not surprising that the 81-year-old Morricone has never performed his work in Los Angeles. (He was scheduled to appear this Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl but at press time the show was postponed.) One reason for this, of course, is that his music is designed for inside with the lights off, not outside in an amphitheater. But there’s also the simple fact that the stubborn, opinionated artiste has never felt the need to kowtow in Hollywood. He’s never lacked for work.
Yet for someone so seemingly uninterested in experiencing America firsthand (he’s only played the States one other time, New York in 2007), Morricone’s palette is thick with the American vernacular. His collaboration with Italian director Sergio Leone, for whom he created the iconic scores for A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, was solidified in part after Leone heard Morricone’s 1962 take on Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty,” sung by American expat Peter Tevis: “California, Arizona, I harvest your crops/Well it’s north up to Oregon to gather your hops.” The melody became a central theme to A Fistful of Dollars, and has since woven its way into the American subconscious. Morricone’s use of jazz was not only innovative, but his particular synthesis, when he decides to employ it, is an eloquently accented Italian translation of an American sound. (Writer David Bither aptly describes the Dollars trilogy as “horse operas.”)
Were those three scores the only ones he ever created, Morricone would have secured his place as a musical iconoclast alongside composers like Juan Garcia Esquivel, Martin Denny and Raymond Scott, visionaries with easily identifiable sonic fingerprints. But Morricone just keeps composing, and, 45 years after his first Leone score, he’s created a body of work as expansive as it is mysterious.
Stateside, he’s worked on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Barry Levinson’s Bugsy and Oliver Stone’s U Turn, among many others. His theme for Roland Joffé’s The Mission has become a de facto orchestral standard, and is often employed during do-or-die moments in football commercials, with its chorale gravitas and swirling strings. Morricone’s 1973 collaboration with Joan Baez, “Here’s to You,” has become an oft-covered crowd pleaser, even while the film from which it came, Sergio Sollima’s 1973 Revolver, has been consigned to the dustbin.
What exactly is it about Morricone’s art that’s so magnetic? Sure, the moments of pure freakishness stand out. The childish nyah-nyah voices in Dario Argento’s Bird With the Crystal Plumage, heard on a home stereo excised from the weird chase sequence Morricone wrote it for, are a freaky aural vision, so out there that you wonder about the composer’s sanity. The entirety of Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik is one long acid trip of blurts, string sweeps, trippy interludes and out-of-body voices. During one particularly surreal chase scene — right after plumes of pink, purple and yellow poison gas disorient a carful of men, Morricone capturing the chaos with wailing saxophones and surf guitars — the composer slams one open-chord guitar riff as a car makes its getaway. The reverb sounds like a rumbling muffler. (Later, a man and woman roll around in $10 million worth of bills while an Indian raga plays along on a sitar.)
But just as important is the secondhand Morricone, whose sound has become ubiquitous through the sampling and quoting of his iconic melodies, the best of which wordlessly capture a certain ... morriconia. In Alexander Payne’s Election, when Tracy Flick learns that hunky jock Paul is running against her for student-body president, the screams of Morricone’s “Navajo Joe” fly out of the screen. In the title track to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2, an operatic female vocal sample from “Ecstasy of Gold” reinforces the rapper’s menace. Metallica has long covered that same song, which first appeared in the film score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Downtown NYC skronker John Zorn’s tribute album, The Big Gundown, is one of the great jazz records of the 1980s. A generation of ecstatic ravers get the warm fuzzies when the archetypical Morricone whistle blows — the Orb sampled it in their chill-out classic, “Little Fluffy Clouds.” Even Ally McBeal, for heaven’s sake, borrowed his music — along with a host of other pop culture icons, from the Pet Shop Boys and the Ramones to The Lion King and Jackass 2, The Jeffersons and The Sopranos. Who else can you say that about?
Maybe that’s why Ennio Morricone doesn’t perform often in the United States. He doesn’t need to.
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