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A Bluffers Guide to Morricone


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This is my bluffers guide around the potential minefield of Ennio Morricone scores. It's meant more as a starter for those that want to dip into the works of Il Maestro but might not have the budget, or the time to wade through the hundreds of albums that are out there just lying around in record stores or on line waiting for you to find them.

This is by no means a definitive list, and I've set myself various criteria for being able to include a score on this list, the major one being I have to actually own the album in question (so no Battle of Algiers soundtrack for instance). I'm not going for compilations, any of Morricone's musical arrangement work for others, or even any of his chamber music. This is just the soundtracks pure and simple. Some you'll agree with, most you probably won't. To come up with a list of just 20 from the amount Ennio has produced has been challenging to say the least. Anyway…

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1. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
It may seem like a glowingly obvious choice, and it's been parodied/covered/heard to death, but go back and listen to this with fresh ears and you'll hear some of the strangest non musique concrète film music ever composed. Church bells, strummed guitars, whip cracks, numerous strange vocals, harmonica and of course those Morricone strings all mix together to form a soundscape that sets the heart a pounding. It's well known that it was this score that placed Morricone on the world stage. Less well known however is the fact that the title theme was a reworking of Ennio's own musical arrangement for Peter Tevis' flop single Pastures of Plenty.

2. Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo [The Good, the Bad and the Ugly] (1966)
Much the same as his previous scores for the Dollars Trilogy, this soundtrack will be familiar to almost anyone with a passing interest in film. Even with the lush widescreen visuals stripped from it, this (like most decent scores) is still a beautiful record to listen too. As with most of his great 60's scores Morricone is using Cantori Moderni as his house band. So bizarre instrumentation and vocals are very much the order of the day. At times (such as L'estasi dell'oro and Il tiello) it's like a musical Mexican standoff between heavily plucked Spanish style guitar, pounding piano, mariachi brass, timpani and a music box. Oh and if you're going to pick this up then do yourself a favour and buy the expanded edition, it's well worth the extra cash believe me.

3. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Morricone's next score for Leone loses most of the playfulness of the Dollars films. The main and closing themes are full on symphonic masterpieces, marrying Edda Dell'Orso's voice to some of the lushest orchestration of his career thus far. Fans of the quirkier side of Ennio are catered for too, there's a sublime Alessandro Alessandroni whistling solo (Farewell to Cheyenne), heavy heavy guitar (As a Judgement) and of course it's all harmonica a go-go on Man With a Harmonica.

4. La donna invisibile (1969)
This is a cracking soundtrack and one that I return to over and over. A lot of Morricone scores contain a few themes that are endlessly reworked to suit the needs of the film. The joy with this score is the fact that it is so diverse. Flitting as it does from quirky jazz pop to piano led tracks drenched with Edda Dell'Orso's breathy wordless vocals. One to own NOW!

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5. L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo [The Bird With the Crystal Plumage] (1970)
Morricone scored all three of Dario Argento's so called Animal Trilogy, and it's this first one that has the most essential score. Violenzia inattesa could well possibly be the most beautiful four minutes of music that Morricone and Cantori Moderni ever recorded. So simple and yet so memorable, not much more than guitar and voices, it's almost like a nursery rhyme without words, the sort of thing you might hum to a child to send it off to sleep. Strange then that it ended up on the soundtrack to Argento's debut giallo.

6. Veruschka (1971)
If like me you're a fan of the jazzier side of Ennio, then this is one for you. Regular Morricone collaborator Edda Dell'Orso is all over this score, appearing as she does on almost every track. For the most part it's gentle summers day jazz, the exception being Astratto which sounds like a spider running it's fingernails down a blackboard.

7. Giu' la testa [Duck, You Sucker/A Fistful of Dynamite] (1971)
It's an odd one this, take the title theme for instance - it contains all the sounds and elements found on his previous Leone soundtracks, yet this sounds nothing like any of them. The soundtrack itself is probably the weakest of the last three Leone scores, but is still worth owning just for the title track alone, with it's 'Sean, Sean' lyrical refrain, strings that reach for the sky and Edda's angelic voice.

8. Revolver (1973)
14 years before his score for The Untouchables came this remarkably similar score. Un amico was used to great effect in Inglourious Basterds, and turns up in three different versions on the Dagored reissue CD. As well as that we get a stab at wah wah bar funk (In un bar), the building pounding piano and brass duel of Revolver and the Vivaldi rip off of um, Quasi un Vivaldi. One of those rare essential Morricone soundtracks that doesn't have Edda Dell'Orso warbling away on it. Now that doesn't happen very often does it?

9. Il Mio Nome E' Nessuno [My Name is Nobody] (1973)
This is the sound of Morricone playfully deconstructing the 'Spaghetti Western' sound he'd dropped onto the world less than a decade before. That's not to say this isn't packed to the gills with great music (it is), it's just that the score reflects the comedic style of the film. Which isn't a bad thing at all. Nowhere is that more apparent than on cuts such as Balletto Degli Specchi and the main theme. I'd say that this is a better score than the more famous Giu' la testa. For you to agree would probably depend very much on your tolerance to hearing near endless reworkings of the cutesy main theme.

10. Days of Heaven (1978)
Possibly one of the best looking films ever, receives a score of equal quality. This is Morricone at his most straightforwardly cinematic, no choirs, no whistling, no church bells not even a gently strummed guitar. Instead we get strings, strings and more strings. Harvest, the films main theme, deliberately quotes the opening of Camille Saint-Saëns' Aquarium (from his Carnival of the Animals suite), which Malick had already used on the temp track (along with Morricone's own score for Bertolucci's 1900) whilst editing Days of Heaven.

Morricone's score for Days of Heaven still stands as one of his greatest achievements, especially when you consider that just one year previously he'd composed the insane disco tinged insanity that was Pazuzu for Exorcist II.

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11. Le professionnel (1981)
Not quite as boombastic as some of the music that would see Morricone's named attached to it later in the decade, this score is a real gem. So it's a bit of a shame that most of the music on this soundtrack never ended up in the film. Instead the already ten year old Chi Mai was used over and over in scene after scene, so much so that the soundtrack might as well have been issued as a 7".

Chi Mai is one of Morricone's most recognisable and popular tracks and had already been used umpteen times before it's appearance here. It was originally written for the soundtrack to the film Maddalena, and has even enjoyed some chart success in the French and UK singles charts. One of my favourite cues however is the opener of side two - Le retour, that propelling bass and drums just get me every time. It's without a doubt a precursor to my own favourite Morricone score of the 80's - Frantic.

12 The Thing (1982)
Quite why John Carpenter didn't record the soundtrack for The Thing himself I don't know. But we can thank him for stepping aside and allowing Morricone to smother this science fiction classic in enough scare cues to make it one of the great modern horror scores. It's all spidery strings, ominous sounds, at times it even has Phantom of the Opera style horror organ, hell Morricone even throws a nod to Carpenter on the track Humanity (Part II).

13. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Of course for Leone there was only ever one choice of composer, and Ennio never let him down. This score is as iconic as anything he'd written for previous Leone films. Since Once Upon a Time in America is set over a period of thirty years the music takes in a few different styles, from the rag time of Friends, through to the who'd have thunk it pan flutes of Cockeye's Theme. Edda Dell'Orso adds her unique voice to the choicest cuts (Deborah's Theme, Friendship and Love), making this an essential album for even the most casual Morricone fan.

14. The Mission (1986)
Gorgeous film receives an equally gorgeous score. This is Morricone showing off his orchestral chops, none of the syths or modern instrumentation that cropped up again and again on his better soundtracks from this decade. Choirs, and strings are the order of the day. How this lost out on Oscar's night to Herbie Hancock's 'Round Midnight I'll never know.

15. The Untouchables (1987)
As over the top as the film, but just like said flick hugely enjoyable. There's two great stirring themes mixed with quieter moments such as Machine Gun Lullaby. The fact that this can be picked up on E-Bay for next to nothing is all the reason you need to add it to your collection.

16. Frantic (1988)
French accordion sounds rubbing shoulders with fretless bass, anxious strings and typical Morricone 80's drums. It's all instantly recognisable as being from the 80's, and doesn't suffer any for that. The music perfectly matches the Polanski film it's draped across. A word of warning though, I'd skip the Simply Red track on the album if I was you.

17. Casualties of War (1989)
For it's main theme alone this is worthy of a place on any Morricone best of list. The fact that the rest of the album is a string laden pan piped drenched opus doesn't hurt either. War is hell, but who cares about that when you've got a Morricone score?

18. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Piano led score that on first listen almost doesn't register just how great it is. The usual Morricone flair for string and woodwind arrangements is to the fore here too. After this Morricone seemed to fall into a bit of a rut for the early 90's, a string of scores for films as diverse as City of Joy, Rampage, Disclosure, Bugsy, Wolf, In the Line of Fire and State of Grace were all a bit Morricone by numbers. Which only make this soundtrack stand out even more as his last great one for almost ten years.

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19. U Turn (1997)
Proving that he could still write some of the weirdest music you'd ever hear in a mainstream Hollywood film, this soundtrack is every bit as strange as the film it's attached to. It's a western but not in the usual sense, electric guitars, banjos, wordless vocals (yep that old chestnut again), grating strings and a whole heap of other oddness combine to create one of Morricone's best scores of the 90's. Shame about the film though.

Morricone turned in two other great soundtracks in '97 - the first for Adrian Lyne's Lolita, the second for the TV series Nostromo. Both are well worth hunting down.

20. Bullworth (1998)
To date Morricone's last great Hollywood score is this oddity. Two twenty minute tracks, the first of which is a lush orchestral piece shot through with vocals by the great Edda Dell'Orso doing what she does best. The second piece is quite playful, built as it is around a circular banjo riff with stabbing trumpet and flute all propelled along by tumbling drums and bass. Like everything else on this list it's one to own, just be careful not to pick up the other soundtrack which is filled with Hip Hop tracks and no Morricone.

by Lawrence


4 Comments

Out of curiosity, Lawrence, have you seen all these films? I've found that I'm familiar with a ton of Morricone scores but that I've seen relatively few of the films they were a part of.
Have you heard the Mission to Mars OST? I had no idea that was Morricone as I watched it recently. I would only recommend the film to diehard De Palma apologists or Morricone completists.

I've had Il Mio Nome E' Nessuno sitting on the shelf for a good half-year, I may mix it up with a spaghetti here soonish.
La donna invisibile and Veruschka are the only two I haven't seen. I've noticed that Morricone scores aren't automatically as good or as bad as the films they're attached too. I've seen some bad films with great scores by the guy.

I quite liked Mission to Mars, and the soundtrack (which I own) does have some decent moments. But neither film nor score are the first things I reach for by either of those two. It feels like De Palma needs to get his mojo back. I really hope he does at some point, since he used to make the greatest films.
I quite like the My Name is Nobody score (and film, mostly.... I tend to not be a huge fan of the comedic spaghetti westerns), keep in mind while watching that Morricone's use of Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" predates Coppola's iconic use of it in Apocalypse Now .