Friday, June 19, 2009

Pointless List : Morricone

(You Might Not Know)

Everybody knows Ennio Morricone, you say. But the mans scored nearly 500 films. Of which I've only seen a tiny fraction. I've heard and loved lots of music from those films on dozens of compilations, but his output is undeniably intimidating and I'm a million miles from being an expert. These are just some generally underloved Morricone moments that I happen to know and love. Nothing too obvious, I hope. No Dollars or Once Upon a Time, no Mission or Cinema Paradiso, no Untouchables or Casualties of War. I could have done fifty, but I stopped at five...

1. Il Grande Silenzio (Restless)
This is the melancholic main theme from Sergio Corbucci's fabulous "The Great Silence", which is a Spaghetti Western quite unlike any other. It is set in the Rocky Mountains and as such is visually utterly unique, occupying a landscape and a frame of mind far removed from every other Spaghetti I've seen. Barren desert and scrubland vistas of pale yellow and pure blue are replaced by a white world, looming mountains and pine forests covered in snow, log cabins and dark rooms barely lit by fires. Morricone echoes this with a delicate piece founded upon a steady guitar arpeggio and (slightly wintry) bells. The melodic theme is quiet and romantic but unmistakably sad, picked out by strings and finally by a subtle chorus. Yet there is something implacable about this music, its steady creeping progress forwards suggesting the evil at the heart of the world the film portrays, while the melody addresses the sorrow and pain. It couldn't really be any further from the music of the Dollars trilogy, but then neither could the film, which has an unbelievably dark ending...

2. Deus Irae Psichedelico
Psychedelic rock with a choral chant thrown over the top, this batshit number sounds like something the Electric Prunes would have forced David Axelrod to throw away out of abject terror at its manifold dark properties. It rocks in that way Ennio can when of a mind to (see "A Fistul of Dollars, The Battle of Algiers etc) and yet that big dumb melody soars and dips throughout and makes it compelling and addictive, like much of the best of Morricone. The highlight or me is when it rises up near the end in a duel of horns, higher and higher and more and more martial. Its from a 1968 Italian social satire called "Escalation" that I havent seen...its one of the many glories of loving Morricone - you hear the music to all these many unseen films, most of which sound intriguing but you know you'll never ever see them.

3. Two Mules for Sister Sara
The thing that made Morricone so different when he first emerged was his willingness to take risks. He used electric guitars to make Western scores sound like surf-rock instrumentals. And he made it work. Nobody had ever done anything like it. Here he combines electric synthesisers, banjo, flute and a vocal choir with an orchestra. And there seem to be about five different melodies running at once. And at least one of them is in imitation of a mule's "eeyore" sound. But it is beautiful, and offbeat, and nobody elese could have written it.

4. Hells Kitchen
"State of Grace", from which "Hells Kitchen" is taken, is perhaps my favourite Morricone score. Its a minor-key masterpiece, suffused with sadness and longing and always beautiful, always haunting. If any of it comes on my iPod when I'm out and about, then the most banal scene is instantly lent a melancholy and majesty it doesn't deserve. The opening piece plays over the credits, a (too) close-up of the St Patricks Day Parade in Manhattan in slow motion, so slow and close as to become near abstract imagery, with this mournful elegy making it all but unbearably poignant. All this without any plot or characters to cling to. This is a film full of pain, it all says, there is no light here. Then the story starts, Morricone seems to ramp up his score, and its turbulent and agonising until that amazing final gunfight (which plays out intercut with that St Patricks Day Parade, and so the film lives up to Morricone's opening promise). Anyway, "Hells Kitchen" is all soft strings, but with a rising (and disturbingly dissonant) counter-melody floating under the surface every few bars. It recalls Jack Nitzsche's superb score for "Cutter's Way", but with that distinctive Ennio romanticism. Its relative obscurity is evident in the fact of its unavailability on cd or as a legal download, and by the fact that there are no samples on youtube. Morricone himself obviously liked it, since he ripped it off so shamelessly for both "Lolita" and "U-Turn" over the course of the next decade.

5. Kalidors Theme
Sword and Sorcery movies were the spaghetti westerns of the early 80s, in one way. Made largely in Spain, featuring casts of has-beens and unknown Europeans and relatively cheap to produce, they made big money at the International box office. So it makes sense that Morricone would score at least one. "Red Sonja" was retitled after Arnold Schwarzenegger's character all over the world, and Morricone's best work on the score is on his theme, one of his straightest, most purely heroic pieces. Its all uplifting, energetic, optimistic horns, all forward motion and suggestions of derring-do. It restates the main movement with more pomp and vigour with every instance. It sounds like he wrote and arranged it in about thirty seconds. Its also incredibly old-fashioned and lovely, in its way.

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Blogger Monsterwork said...

You're saying you have the State of Grace theme, but there's no YouTube clip for it?

Make one. Those Apple things are supposed to make that business dead easy. One google image search for the poster. A bit of movie editing software. Bang. Will take you maybe two listens of the theme itself to make and then you upload that little pudding while you go put the kettle on.

4:44 pm  
Blogger David N said...

You know, I never actually thought of that. And it turns out its just ten minutes too much hassle for lazy old me, which is probably why I never thought of it.

If you really want it, its out there on bittorrent. Or eBay. Thats how I got it...

11:02 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...


9:37 am  

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