Thoughts on Morricone

When I had once suggested in a Youtube comment section (I know!) that I preferred the late Ennio Morricone to John Williams, a strangely contemptuous response that I received said, “Oh, you like Good, Bad and Ugly right?”

Actually, I hadn’t been thinking of that film at all.  I have as such not been into Westerns.  And to believe that Morricone is (or rather, was) all about Westerns is as lazy as saying Scorsese is all about mafia movies, only even worse.

The first time a Morricone theme made an impression on me was neither the Westerns nor Once Upon A Time In America nor Cinema Paradiso.  It was when I watched The Untouchables back in my teenage days.  I didn’t know then about this prolific composer named Morricone.  But I did connect with this theme right away and have never forgotten it:

 

This theme occurs when Costner’s character hunts down the man who killed Connery’s character and corners him in the terrace of a skyscraper.

A few things strike me as I listen again to the theme.

  1. How jagged and demanding it actually is to listen to it standalone, especially the piano motif.  And yet, how perfectly it fits the scene, the tension of the moment!
  2. Tension, yes!  That is what he was going for with these theme.  And to achieve that, he writes music punctuated by rhythm.  There is that groovy beat but also the dark staccato piano motif, then the woodwind group that enters the scene at the 1 minute mark followed by violins which, again, punctuate the air rather than flow through it.
  3. On this percussive backdrop, he overlays what sounds either like harmonica or a clavinet to me.  It is so serene it is almost creepy.  Which is the point.  Merely by appearing to be undisturbed by the proceedings, it evokes more tension.

What indeed attracted me to his scores were how evocative they could be.  It was not composed to be a beautiful piece standalone (though it could be) but to convey something deeper about the cinematic moment itself.  And in that regard, he reminded me a lot of, yes, Ilaiyaraja’s own approach.  In fact, while Ilaiyaraja often mentions John Williams or Hans Zimmer, I do wonder if Morricone (as also Mancini) were bigger influences on him (hence why he doesn’t talk so much about them :D).

Across different movies, he came up with themes that were uncanny.  Themes that would become earworms and refuse to leave my head.  And then, I would check out the credits and find it was the work of Morricone.

Mike Nichols’ Wolf starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader and Christopher Plummer is a somewhat flawed but fascinating film that I have a soft corner for (not least because of that cast).  The music had a big role too to play as well in drawing me in (great horror films often have great scores).  And, no wonder, I learnt it was Morricone.

The theme at 1:01 is verily the signature theme of the film, the one that defines the score.  But listen also to the theme at 7:57 (which again appears multiple times in the film).  This uncanny fusing of the modern and the classical was another aspect I loved about his scores.  He did not confine himself to either the orchestra or the synth palate and instead adopted a flexible approach, tailoring the sound palate in incredibly versatile ways depending on what the film needed.

So…when he needed to, he could paint a lush soundscape with sumptuous violin (Once Upon A Time In America) but he could also do the above and much more.  His range including not only his films but his eclectic work outside films would be too broad to encompass in a little blog write up.  I am posting below a Guardian article that does a good job of choosing ten highlights which demonstrate just how broad his range was.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jul/06/ennio-morricone-10-of-his-greatest-compositions

It was in this spirit that I chose to talk about a well regarded but somewhat commercial film and an oddball that, if you didn’t accidentally catch on TV back in the day, you would pass over based only off IMDB ratings.  He didn’t reserve his best work only for the classics but illuminated lesser films too by getting the score to bring out the emotions that perhaps weren’t fully etched out in the frames themselves.  Another aspect in which he resembled Ilaiyaraja (the other way round, really).

When I hear that synth theme of Wolf, I recall immediately, the final scene where Nicholson, now inexorably transformed into a wolf, runs away into the wilderness and we are left wondering whether Pfeiffer will join him too. Ditto with that Untouchables theme, I don’t even have to check to be sure.  I KNOW…the music has made such a strong association with that scene in my head that I will never forget what was going on in the part where it plays.  Another similarity to Ilaiyaraja.  By no means are Morricone and Raja the only ones who achieved that, but the extremely evocative nature of the scores make the association between music and visuals much stronger.

Morricone was 91.  He had lived long and had an incredibly productive career, running up a Raja-esque film count (once more, the similarities).  Even so, it has been difficult to write this little tribute for two reasons.  One, that at least here in India, we seem to have lost far too many film personalities in just the year so far, some to covid-19 and some to other causes.  Two, Morricone’s passing away also brings curtains down on an era of cinema and it is oddly apt that it should happen in the void of covid-19.  Because the film industry is likely to look very different as and when we do reopen for business, accelerating a change that would have made the kind of films Morricone worked on increasingly a thing of the past.  With web series becoming more and more important, with Marvel dominating conventional cinema and with Netflix becoming an important producer and distributor of ‘movie content’ (as opposed to films released on the big screen), there may not be too many movies in the future that would require rich background scores.

Or, there might and the ghost of Morricone will be smiling down on the one who takes over the mantle from him and uses music to express what the actors and the props sometimes cannot. RIP.

 

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