Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

For a fistful of Oscars

Being the cool, hip and jaded sort of person that I am, I am usually in the habit of dismissing the Academy Awards as “meaningless” and “shallow” and totally irrelevant to art and quality. But then, every so often the Powers That Be at the Academy do something that lifts my heart and makes me care about these awards after all. A notable recent example was three years when the final movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, got eleven Oscars. (Okay, so I’m not really a cool, hip, jaded guy. I’m more of a geeky guy.)

Anyway, another instance of the Academy doing something to lift my heart has occurred already, in advance of the Oscars ceremony, scheduled for the 25th of this month. They are giving film composer Ennio Morricone a lifetime achievement award.

In one of those developments over time that tend to make people who pay a lot of attention to movies, well, jaded, Morricone has in some baffling way managed to score glorious music for hundreds of films for scores of years without ever getting the Oscar he deserves. In this sense, a lifetime award or honorary Oscar of this sort is basically the Academy’s way of saying, sorry, but the people who actually vote on these things screwed up multiple times. Big time.

Now, I have actually spent some time lately pondering the nature of film music. Not entirely out of some theoretical, aesthetic appreciation, but more as a practical matter for organizing different types of music. You see, the Missus in her infinite generosity bought me a lovely Ipod-like device for Christmas. (Well, she paid for it anyway. Gift dilemma solved.) It’s not an actual Ipod, although some did dub it an “Ipod killer.” (Not too much danger of that anytime soon, however.) Anyway, it is nice enough that it finally motivated me to get serious about consolidating my music, i.e. ripping all the CDs I have acquired down through many years, as well as organizing the various MP3 and WMA files I have accumulated (many legally!) over not-quite-as-many years. And being relatively compulsive, I of course have had to make sure all these files are tagged with some sort of consistency, in terms of artists, albums, release years and (the biggest headache) genre. Interestingly, my shelf of soundtracks proved to be one of the thorniest sections to organize. In fairness, a lot of the complications are self-inflicted. For the genre label to be useful to me, I want it to organize my music into groups of tracks that I would personally want to play together. I quickly realized that a genre designation of “soundtrack” (the default for much movie and show music) wasn’t very useful. A quick survey made obvious that there were several distinct types of “soundtracks.” Musicals and/or rock operas were one kind. These capture virtually all the singing in the course of a film or stage production. Film scores are another. These comprise the music you hear while watching a movie but do not in and of themselves advance the story the way the song in a musical does. Then there are the compilations of pop songs that pass as “soundtracks” on a lot of movies these days. Some of these songs are not even heard in the movie in question or they are heard in the background of a dramatic scene so that you are barely (if at all) aware of them. Some such “soundtracks” include no music from the movie but a selection of songs “inspired by” a movie or a TV show. Then some film and/or stage and/or TV composers release collections of their best-known music from several productions on one or more discs. And then there are the collections of theme songs from all sorts of various movies and TV shows that sometimes get grouped together on one or more discs. Even though all of these different kinds of recordings often get dubbed “soundtracks,” as a practical matter, do I really want to hear John Williams’s resounding orchestrations from Jurassic Park in the same large playlist that includes various pop songs that may or may not have featured on various episodes of Friends? (Either you are nodding vigorously in agreement or else you are shaking your head and worrying, he’s way over-thinking this!)

Anyway, in the process of all this organizing, I have come to a few basic realizations. One is that people may play film scores in the background while they are doing something else, but probably few people sit back and concentrate on listening to them, as they might with pop music or even classical music. Another is that if a person remembers anything from a film score, it is almost certainly the title theme, if it is memorable, and nothing more—with the possible exception of one or more pop songs, if they are included on the soundtrack. And, for a lot of movies, people leave the cinema not remembering anything about the music not having thought much about it except that it was “exciting” in the exciting parts and “scary” in the scary parts.

There are exceptions to what I have just said. In some movies, the music is an integral part of the experience of the film. As I wrote a couple of years ago, this is often the case when the score is by someone like John Williams (think Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.). It is impossible to imagine movies like The Magnificent Seven or Titanic or the aforementioned Lord of the Rings trilogy without their musical scores. The same is true of many of the movies scored by Ennio Morricone. But there is something else that is extraordinary about Morricone. Remember what I said in the previous paragraph about people not really being able to actively listen to film scores they way they might to pop or classical music? With many of Morricone’s film scores, you can. His film scores are extremely listen-able. This is because, while some of his film music is the usual background stuff, which isn’t there to call attention to itself but to serve the purpose of setting a mood or heightening viewer emotion, much of Morricone’s film music is wonderfully melodic.

Avid listeners of National Public Radio already know this. Indeed, NPR has been highlighting Morricone quite a bit lately. Last week Fresh Air repeated an 11-year-old interview with Morricone, on the occasion of the release of a new box-set of his music by Rhino Records. And, on Sunday, Weekend Edition devoted a segment to him, in which the network’s resident film music buff, Andy Trudeau, analyzed his body of work and played some samples. Trudeau and the program’s regular host, Liane Hansen, annually do a series of such composer overviews for those nominated for the Best Score Oscar, for several Sunday leading up to the Academy Award telecast. They will be doing it again, starting this Sunday, and it is always worth listening to.

Trudeau noted that, in addition to the melodic nature of Morricone’s compositions, his music was distinctive for the regular use of certain distinctive performers, like the guy who does the whistling on some of his spaghetti western soundtracks (Alessandro Alessandroni) or the soprano vocalist who appears on others (Edda dell’Orso). Trudeau also noted that Morricone’s film music has often had a distinct pop music quality to it, and he and substitute host Rebecca Roberts agreed that some of his compositions from the 1960s sounded very, well, sixties-ish. They seemed to think that this made them sound dated, but I don’t entirely agree. They are certainly of their era, but they are by no means embarrassing or un-listenable (with a straight face) like some 1960s music.

Morricone’s film music can be divided into several broad categories. A very notable one would be his spaghetti westerns. No one who has heard his echoing guitar chords from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly forgets them. His triumph, however, was the score for Sergio Leone’s triumph, Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone and Morricone conceived the film as something like an opera, with the music (each of the main characters having his or her own theme) playing an integral part in the story. Other memorable scores include A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, Two Mules for Sister Sara and A Fistful of Dyanmite. But Morricone has supplied the music to literally hundreds of other Italian films as well as films from other countries, including quite a few for Hollywood. Recent film scores have included the 1997 version of Lolita, Bulworth, Mission to Mars and Ripley’s Game. Filmgoers who are not into spaghetti westerns may find some of his Oscar-nominated scores the most memorable, like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Barry Levinson’s Bugsy and (especially) Roland Joffe’s The Mission. He might also have got a nomination for his nice score for Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, if the U.S. distributor of that movie had bothered to file the paperwork. It (and most of his Oscar also-rans) did get BAFTAs in Britain, as well as his score (in collaboration with son Andrea) for Cinema Paradiso.

Less known to Americans, but also quite lovely, is Morricone’s music from his vast oeuvre of European films, like Maddalena, The Sicilian Clan, The Professional, For Love One Dies, Quartiere and Sacco and Vanzetti. This last one featured vocal collaborations with singer Joan Baez, including a major leftist anthem of the time (and a lovely, haunting elegy), “Here’s to You,” which was last heard in the movies (by my reckoning anway) on the very eclectic soundtrack of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. These film scores are more than enough reason to seek out the Rhino box-set or any of the other numerous available discs of Ennio Morricone’s music.

-S.L., 8 February 2007

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