The career of Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who on Feb. 26 will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has few — if any — parallels in the history of film music.
The composer for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “The Mission,” “The Untouchables,” “Cinema Paradiso” and an estimated 375 other feature films (not to mention another 90 or so TV projects) is perhaps the most prolific in Western cinema.
He is also among the most respected. Filmmakers from Terrence Malick to John Boorman, Mike Nichols to Barry Levinson, Roman Polanski to Bernardo Bertolucci, Roland Joffe to Brian De Palma, have sought him out to contribute to their films.
Reached at his home in Rome, he says via interpreter, that receiving the star is “a great accolade,” adding, “I can only anticipate how I’m going to feel when I’m there in L.A.”
It’s just the latest honor for the 87-year-old maestro. In 2007, he received an honorary Oscar for his body of work. He is nominated again this year (his sixth time) for his music in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.”
“If you look at the Sergio Leone Westerns, that was a whole new way of dealing with drama,” says Hans Zimmer of the Italian director’s trilogy of Clint Eastwood films starting with 1964’s “Fistful of Dollars.” “A great composer can literally be timeless with the devices they use.” Those devices included wailing harmonica, savage electric guitar bursts and soaring vocals. “Anybody with less courage and less imagination just wouldn’t have done it,” adds Zimmer. “For me, he’s singularly the most gratifying composer.”
Morricone says he found working with Leone “very rewarding,” although, he adds, “I didn’t actually realize I was bringing about a kind of musical revolution in the Western genre.”
His wildly original theme for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” based on a coyote howl and played on an ocarina, became a hit record, sending Morricone’s soundtrack to No. 4 on the pop album charts in 1968. But commissions for his scores in America didn’t occur until the late ’70s/early ’80s, when such films as “Days of Heaven” and “The Island” began appearing on his resume.
In Europe, however, he was a phenomenon, sometimes scoring more than 20 films a year. Today, he admits, he took every assignment offered. “Now it’s different,” he says. “I’m a little bit more selective.”
Yet he never sloughed off any assignment. Even B action pictures like “Guns for San Sebastian” and “The Five Man Army,” both from the late ’60s, sport glorious themes befitting far better movies. His thrillers veer into the avant-garde. Even infamous bombs, such as “Exorcist II: The Heretic” and “Mission to Mars,” were inevitably buoyed by Morricone music.
|“I didn’t actually realize that I was bringing about a kind of musical revolution in the Western genre.”|
“He really is a genius,” says director Levinson, who hired Morricone for “Bugsy” and “Disclosure” in the early 1990s. Visiting the maestro in Rome at the time, he soon discovered that there was no piano in his writing room and was stunned to learn that, when conceiving a score, “he doesn’t just hear the melody, he hears it with 74 musicians in his head.”
That’s because Morricone is not only classically trained having studied at the renowned Santa Cecilia Conservatory, but he also worked throughout the 1950s as an arranger and orchestrator for radio, TV, records and theater. He credits all these experiences for his versatility and innovative sensibility.
And he takes pride in personally orchestrating every note, creating the very specific sound of each score. That’s why, Levinson adds, “there is a signature to so much of his work.”
Morricone’s masterpiece, many say, is 1986’s “The Mission,” which revolves around 18th-century Jesuits in South America. The story demanded a choral and orchestral approach that acknowledged period liturgical music, native flutes and chants, and oboe solos to match what Jeremy Irons’ priest character was pretending to play.
Joffe remembers screening the film for the composer and then being turned down. “He was in tears. He said, ‘You don’t need music for this film, it’s too beautiful.’” Yet four days later, Morricone phoned with an idea for a theme. Today, in his concerts, he plays extended suites from “The Mission.”
“He is a magical person,” says Joffe, who employed Morricone on three other films including “City of Joy.” “When Ennio is on form, he has a precise and clear way of getting to the heart of something in a totally unexpected way.”
Warren Beatty, who worked closely with Morricone on both 1994’s “Love Affair” and 1998’s “Bulworth,” puts it simply: “There’s no better living composer than Ennio.”
In recent years, Giuseppe Tornatore has succeeded Leone as Morricone’s favorite director. They’ve collaborated on a dozen films together since “Cinema Paradiso,” and they are so close Morricone often writes the main themes even before the film is shot.
The maestro now divides his time between films, concertizing and writing what he calls “absolute music” (music for the concert hall). Does he regret spending so much time on movies over the past 55 years?
“I have a very satisfying, rewarding life, both as a man and an artist,” he says. “Despite almost 500 scores for film and television, I have also found the time to compose around 100 pieces of absolute music. So I am satisfied and proud of what I have written.”