Italian maestro earns honorary Oscar

Ennio Morricone is not just the most prolific film composer of the past 50 years. His is also one of the most innovative voices in the history of the art form.

Although he’s been nominated only five times for the Oscar, the international film community is unanimous in its praise for the Italian maestro — and incredulous that his 350-plus feature scores haven’t garnered the Academy’s highest accolade until now.

“For me, he’s singularly the most gratifying composer,” says film scorer Hans Zimmer. “The technique is there, the intellect, the heart. Nobody else has written melodies with such emotional force — and at the same time, all that wit and humor and craft.”

The Academy’s failure to give Morricone the 1986 statuette for his orchestral-and-choral masterpiece “The Mission” is widely considered one of the major oversights in Oscar music history. (Herbie Hancock won that year for the jazzy “‘Round Midnight,” which contained very little original music.)

This year’s honorary Academy Award helps to redress that grievance — and other perhaps unjustly overlooked scores since Morricone began writing movie music in 1961.

“He has a sense of poetry, of invention, and a joy in experimentation,” says composer Charles Bernstein, one of three Academy music branch governors who pressed for the award. “He’s able to combine a sense of classical, lyrical beauty with a quirky, playful quality that no one else has been able to do in quite the same measure.”

Morricone’s music for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western trilogy (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) revolutionized Western scores with their offbeat orchestrations, including electric guitar, wordless soprano and male choir. “Anybody with less courage or imagination wouldn’t have done it,” Zimmer says.

His music combines an often lush romanticism with seemingly incongruous nods to his own roots in Italy’s avant-garde musical culture of the 1950s and ’60s, notes British film historian Christopher Frayling. And Morricone insists on personally orchestrating every note, unlike most American film composers.

“Days of Heaven” was his first nomination, in 1978 (in addition to “The Mission,” subsequent nominations were for “The Untouchables,” “Bugsy” and “Malena”). But at least a dozen other scores that are now considered classics were ignored in their day.

Among them are his alternately lyrical and savage score for Leone’s 1969 “Once Upon a Time in the West,” whose harmonica motif figured prominently in the storyline, and the complex, melancholy music for Leone’s ambitious 1984 crime drama “Once Upon a Time in America.”

“Chi Mai,” a stunningly beautiful theme from his 1971 “Maddalena” soundtrack, became a top-10 hit in the U.K. after its use in the BBC’s “The Life and Times of David Lloyd George” series a decade later.

The music from Leone’s 1971 Mexican Revolution tale “Duck, You Sucker” and “Cinema Paradiso,” the nostalgic 1989 foreign-language film Oscar winner, also are favorites among Morricone aficionados.

Even when the movies are bad (“Exorcist II: The Heretic,” “Red Sonja,” “Mission to Mars”), the music not only survives, the LPs and CDs are sought-after by fanatic Morricone collectors worldwide.

“He respects the image,” Frayling says. “Instead of repeating what you’re seeing, he tries to add another layer of meaning through the music. At its best, it’s just blissful the way music and image come together. And the work stands even when you’re not watching the movie. It’s great music.”

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