Ennio Morricone, who died on 6th July at the age of 91, was a prolific composer for film – and there were few genres that he didn’t touch in his long career, from historical dramas such as ‘The Mission‘ to the fantastic wilds of Hypoborea in ‘Red Sonja‘. He helped terrify through his scores for films such as ‘John Carpenter’s The Thing‘ and ‘Exorcist II‘. He also composed a vast quantity of non-film orchestral music, but, to his own chagrin, it was his contribution to the reinvention of the Western Movie that for many was what he was best known for. It is also this which merits a mention of his passing here on Americana UK.
Working in the mid-60’s with Sergio Leone, whom he first met in primary school, Ennio Morricone contributed scores for the most iconic of the Spaghetti Westerns – ‘A Fist Full of Dollars‘, ‘For a Few Dollars More‘, and ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. Between them Leone and Morricone re-invented the Westen – Leone with his imagery of heat, dust and random violence and Morricone with his soundtracks which blended classical instrumentation with a twanging contemporary rock sound all knitted together with judicious use of sound effects – whip cracks, rifles being cocked – and grunted vocals and distinctive whistled themes. It was a re-imagining that the cinema audience was ready for – spoon-fed by Hollywood dismal stories of white-hatted heroes seeing off black-hatted baddies the time was more than ripe for a new story, and it took an outsider to see what was needed to represent a modern Western hero. Clint Eastwood may have been an impossibly good gunslinger, but like everyone else he encountered he was rough around the edges in look, and distinctly dubious in the morality stakes – now the good guys wore black hats too.
Morricone’s scores were essential parts of this reimagining, making the American West appear to be somewhere where everyone was walking a constant knife’s edge of anxiety – every day likely to bring danger and violence from an unforeseen direction, where gunslingers revelled in their sadistic quirks and a long stare from narrowed eyes would inevitably end with the drawing of firearms. The distinctive use of rock band elements and sound effects that made such a mark in ‘A Fist Full of Dollars‘ was adopted by Morricone as a way to extend the budget – the film couldn’t run to the kind of full orchestration that he would bring to later films such as ‘Once Upon a Time in the West‘. It was an inspired necessity.
What Morricone could not have guessed at the time would be the extent that his Western film music would affect popular music – and in particular Americana. With just a few twanging guitar notes and a snatch of Jaw Harp a band can conjure up this version of the myth of the Wild West. A myth of desperate men in dusty overcoats powered by insatiable greed or a desire for vengeance set in endless pursuit of each other to a backdrop of Spanish and Italian mountains.
It’s an outsider image that could only have been created by outsiders – and Morricone lived the whole of his life in Rome, whilst reimagining the story of a whole other continent.
Away from Westerns Morricone would also help to romanticise the Italian immigrant experience in the USA in films such as ‘Once upon a time in America‘ and to document a darker side in ‘Sacco & Vanzetti‘ which saw this collaboration with Joan Baez.