×

Morricone composes music revolution

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Metro 2033

    Cult Sci-Fi Novel 'Metro 2033' to Be Adapted as Movie (EXCLUSIVE)

    Russia’s TNT-Premier Studios Company, TV-3 Channel and Central Partnership Film Company – all part of Gazprom Media – have come together to produce a movie based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s sci-fi novel “Metro 2033,” which has also been adapted as a video game. Filming is due to start next year. The Russian premiere of the movie [...]

  • Beforeigners

    'Beforeigners’' Anne Bjornstad on HBO's First Norwegian Original Series

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —  HBO Europe’s first Norwegian original series, which debuted Aug. 21 exclusively across HBO’s territories, has garnered rave reviews in the Norwegian press. It is also a perfect fit for HBO’s brand and goal to create bold, smart and author-driven shows. Produced by Endemol Shine’s Norwegian prodco Rubicon TV, “Beforeigners” is helmed by [...]

  • Refugees from the besieged Muslim enclave

    Sarajevo’s True Stories Market: Documenting the Atrocities of War

    Reconciliation and dealing with the tragedies of the Yugoslav Wars has been a major focus of the Sarajevo Film Festival and its CineLink Industry Days event in recent years. The True Stories Market, launched in 2016, aims to connect filmmakers with organizations that are researching and documenting the Yugoslav Wars that spanned 1991 to 2001 [...]

  • Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’

    Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ Wins Top Prize in Sarajevo

    “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” Bosnian director Ena Sendijarević’s coming-of-age story about a teen raised in the Netherlands who returns to Bosnia to visit her ailing father, won the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Festival Thursday night, earning the Amsterdam-based helmer the coveted Heart of Sarajevo Award. The jury heralded the “beautifully photographed, acted, scripted [...]

  • Khadar Ahmed - BUFO - photo

    Bufo Sets Key Cast for Co-Production ‘The Gravedigger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —   Actor Omar Abdi, who starred in the Ahmed-scripted short “Citizens,” and actress Yasmin Warsame, who made her name as a Canadian model, will topline romantic-tragedy “The Gravedigger,” the latest big screen project from Bufo, the Helsinki-based outfit behind Berlinale winner “The Other Side of Hope.” The film follows a Djibouti gravedigger [...]

  • Jacobs Ladder Movie 2019

    Film Review: 'Jacob's Ladder'

    It’s understandable that someone would want to remake “Jacob’s Ladder,” Adrian Lyne’s 1990 head-trip thriller about a Vietnam veteran haunted by fragmentary nightmare visions. I was far from alone in finding the original to be an overwrought but rather thin “psychological” horror film that was more punishing than pleasurable. And it wasn’t exactly a hit, [...]

  • Fiddler A Miracle of Miracles

    Film Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles'

    Still beloved and routinely revived 55 years after its Broadway debut — including a Yiddish-language version now playing in New York — “Fiddler on the Roof” is a popular phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Max Lewkowicz’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” provides an entertaining if hardly exhaustive overview of how the unlikely success [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content