When I heard that Ennio Morricone had died, at 91, my first thought was that the cinema had lost one of the most romantic of all screen composers. Morricone, who worked with filmmakers from around the world but rarely left his native Rome (he insisted on not speaking in any language but Italian), wrote movie scores suffused with romance, with majestic waves of yearning and heartbreak and rapture and lyric melancholy. His most famous scores were the ones he composed for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, and that music, so gorgeous and plaintive, with a kind of Grindhouse of the Old World incandescence, was the thing that elevated Leone’s grand, crude, stylized, nearly wordless hombre operas into a pulp dreamscape, a place where bursts of violence were set off by the lonely quavering sound of an ocarina, which seemed to be suspending time itself.
Yet when you think back on those films, or the others that Morricone became best known for, it’s hard to find even one conventional love story. “The Untouchables” and “Cinema Paradiso.” “The Mission” and “The Hateful Eight.” “The Battle of Algiers” and “1900.” “La Cage aux Folles” and “In the Line of Fire.” “Days of Heaven” and “Bugsy.” The list goes on and on, since Morricone, starting in 1961 with “The Fascist” (for which he wrote a jaunty lockstep score that caught the mindset of military fascism and mocked it at the same time), composed the soundtracks for more than 400 films, which was some kind of a record. No other film composer has matched it.
It’s astonishing, in hindsight, that that roster didn’t include a picture like “A Man and a Woman” or “Love Story” or “Romeo and Juliet.” Yet the passion that coursed through Morricone’s soundtracks told a different kind of love story. A romantic drama, in the truest and grandest sense, doesn’t need to be about two people falling in love with each other. It can be about the quest that pushes someone to go to swooning extremes, like the holy (and spectacularly misguided) Jesuit pilgrimage into the jungles of South America in “The Mission.” Or the crime-fighting nobility that drives Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables.” Or the reverie of cinema itself in “Cinema Paradiso.” The music of Ennio Morricone told the story of each character’s rapture, and that’s why it seemed to light up those movies from within.
It also told the story of how the past can drape itself over the present: sadly, wistfully, transcendently. That’s part of the magic he brought to the spaghetti Western trilogy that Leone made with Clint Eastwood. When Eastwood first skulked into the vast spaces of “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), he wasn’t just the man with no name. He was the man who barely had an existence, the Western renegade who had come out of nowhere. Morricone’s music, with its ghostly whistles and yearning bursts of Mexican trumpet, seemed to be doing nothing less than filling in the character’s soul.
It would be hard to think of another case in cinema history where a soundtrack created, so literally, a film’s third dimension. It was the music that lent Eastwood’s rugged presence a note of mystery, that allowed Leone to extend the tropes of the Western into druggy hypnotic action sequences that seemed to stretch out forever. The last of the three films, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966), features what is arguably Leone’s greatest score, with its coyote-howl motif and its galloping refrain. In the late ’60s, that music gave the Western its final jolt of classic grandeur and, at the same time, seemed to be bidding farewell to the genre with one last tip of the flat-brimmed hat.
Back when there were CD stores, I was in the soundtrack section of Tower Records hunting for a Morricone score, and my jaw dropped when I saw all the albums that were in his section. Dozens upon dozens of Italian import soundtracks, all for movies that had never made it here, and that surely contained riches I had never heard; I still haven’t heard most of them. Few Americans have. But Morricone churned them out with a work ethic that, by all accounts, kept him happy. He looked like a professor and thought of himself as a classical musician, orchestrating every note of his own scores. And one aspect of his extraordinary output is that he didn’t necessarily distinguish between the soundtracks that a lot of us obsess over and the ones that weren’t so famous. He thought of them all as children.
Everyone has their favorite Morricone score. There are many who love “The Mission,” which for sheer lush orchestral beauty is truly in the stratosphere. The pan-pipe Proustian fantasia he composed for “Once Upon a Time in America” is a case, at least to me, of a score that so outstrips the film it was written for that you wish the movie had lived up to it. (Many think it does.) The tense, jagged, thrillingly discordant opening music of “The Untouchables” is indelible — a crime-film score that touches our collective memory of the underworld genre. And “Days of Heaven,” which is a love story (albeit one in which one of the principal characters is God), has a score that starts off every bit as shimmering and crisp as the film’s magic-hour imagery, only to melt you with its haunting mixture of faith and loss.
That said, if I had to choose my favorite Morricone score, apart from the spaghetti Westerns (which I absolutely think are his greatest), it would be the magnificent opening theme music he composed for “Burn!,” a 1969 colonial drama directed by Gillo Pontecorvo that stars Marlon Brando as a British secret agent who foments and manipulates a slave uprising in the Caribbean. The music that opens the film starts off as a single-note organ melody that turns into a stately chant that turns into a slow-groove island hymn that turns into a soaring choral version of “Louie Louie” that turns into the most ecstatic revolutionary anthem this side of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” You could say that it’s completely uncharacteristic of Morricone, except for one thing: the way it burns itself, forever, into your heart.