Genius. Legend. Labels that are frequently worn out when bandied about. But while November 10th 2015 might be a regular ol’ Tuesday for most, today just so happens to be a great day to honor an artist who can rightfully lay claim to legendary status. I’m talking about Ennio Morricone. a.k.a. the Maestro, as he’s known and will be referred to in this article more than a dozen times.
This master of musical arrangement, sound mixing and avant-garde creativity turns a sprightly 87 today. Showing no signs of slowing down —he has european tour dates marked for 2016 and his highly anticipated first original score for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is in the can and on the horizon— Morricone’s 500+ film credits attest to his strong work ethic and passion for scoring films. So I’ve attempted the fool’s errand of diving into his discography and picking out 30 of his very best cinematic scores.
Morricone still lives in Rome, the city he was born and raised in, and famously speaks only a few words of English. You can’t get more Italian than that, but as the adage goes, his music is a universal language. He is most readily associated with the westerns of Sergio Leone, but as this list will hopefully show, his musical range extends far beyond Leone’s cinema. “They’re all my children…every score I’ve done,” he often says, which influenced a plethora of artists across musical genres: artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Goldfrapp, Black Sabbath, DJ Premiere, and Metallica have each paid Morricone homage at one point or another. He is above any other film composer past or present, barring maybe Bernard Herrmann, in revolutionizing the way we understand film music.
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So, grab a good bottle of Italian red, and lend me your eyes and ears as I run down the most memorable and influential pieces from the Maestro’s staggering oeuvre.
“For A Few Dollars More” (1965)
It seems unfair to include all three scores from the ‘Dollars Trilogy’ on this list, especially considering that the whip-cracking title theme from “A Fistful of Dollars” overshadows everything else as such so overwhelmingly. Were this an “Essential” and not a “Best Of” list, “A Fistful Of Dollars” would’ve probably made it instead, but I’m of the mind that “For A Few Dollars More” is the better representative of Morricone’s revolutionary methods for Leone’s westerns. For its twangy jew’s-harps, insanely catchy guitar riffs, iconic whistling, bell tolls, church organs, and El Indio’s (Gian Maria Volonte) musical pocket watch, which “transfers your thought to a different place” and paints the psychological makeup of the character so vividly, “For A Few Dollars More” is as iconic as Clint Eastwood’s staredown.
“The Battle Of Algiers” (1966)
Even though it’s the only score on this list that has someone else’s name next to Morricone’s in the credits, leaving out “The Battle Of Algiers” would be more than a bit blasphemous, thanks to how archetypal it’s become. Due to contractual obligations, director Gillo Pontecorvo had to be credited alongside Morricone, and for “Ali’s Theme,” it was Pontecorvo who came up with the four notes that “became the essence of the film” in Morricone’s opinion. But it was the Maestro himself who arranged them into the score. With all due respect to Pontecorvo, who directed a masterpiece, he worked under the auspices of a master arranger, whose permutations of military drumming, horns and pianos light the picture’s eternal flame of revolutionary independence.
“The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” (1966)
Aaah-eee-aaah-eee-Ahhh. Practically Morricone’s birthday jingle, this is the theme song of the wholeheartedly, bombastically subversive OST for Leone’s “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.” The first two entries in the ‘Dollars’ trilogy paved the way for this new sound, but I can only imagine (and seethe with eternal jealousy) what listening to the galloping rhythms, harmonicas, trumpets, and “Ecstasy of Gold” —if there was a lab for such things, scientists would prove it as one of the best pieces of film music ever composed— must have sounded like to fresh ears in the late ’60s. Some variation of “OMFG how can something sound so goddamn cool?” probably. Morricone followed his avant-garde heart and used real sounds “to give a kind of nostalgia that the film had to convey.” In the case of “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly,” these were mainly animal sounds, namely what’s become known as the coyote howl —the Western genre was officially never the same again.
“Navajo Joe” (1966)
What, you thought Morricone only left the best of his Western scores for Sergio Leone? Per favore. He dished out his unique genius all over the mixing board for another Sergio, in this case Corbucci, and perhaps it was his pseudonym “Leo Nichols” that unleashed the beast that roams around the wild sounds of “Navajo Joe.” Catchy keys, a taste of the crazed avant-garde, emotional build-ups climaxing in dementia that anticipate his proclivity for horror (‘A Silhouette Of Doom’); the arrangements with the melodious human chants of “Navajo Joe, Navajo Joeee” —as the once-heard-forever-remembered title anthem— are some of the Maestro’s most inventive pieces in the genre. Again, we can thank Quentin Tarantino for reminding the general public of the brilliance in this soundtrack, because he repurposed some of it for “Kill Bill,” but you’d do well to seek out the original.
“Once Upon A Time In The West” (1968)
In one of his most prolific years, Morricone continued his partnership with Sergio Leone and composed what to many ears is the most gorgeous music heard in a Western film. Italian singer Edda Dell’Orso would go on to work with Morricone on numerous projects, well into his giallo phase, but her voice would sound as angelic as it does in “Once Upon A Time In The West,” accompanied by Morricone’s sensual strings. The album sold over 10 million copies worldwide, and when you hear “The Man With The Harmonica” for the 1000th time, the only question remaining is: how come it sold so little? The leitmotifs described the four principle characters in unheralded, oft-repeated but never bettered ways, which must’ve worked doubly strong, because Leone played Morricone’s music on set to get the actors in the mood. One of the greatest examples of the operatic Western, “Once Upon A Time In The West” is firmly situated in the highest of echelons when it comes to a cinematic union of image and score.
This is one of those cases in Morricone’s long, workaholic history where it’s okay to throw the baby out as long as you leave the bathwater. That is to say, Roberto Faenza’s Italian dark comedy “Escalation” isn’t very good, but Morricone was firing on all cylinders at this time, churning out another unforgettable score full of pure musical joy. Stand outs include the funky “Dias Irae Psichedelico” (psychedelic is right) and its genius moment of silence, and all the “Funerale Nero” variations, which has Morricone digging into his jazz roots with trumpets that’ll give you dancing fever. The dreamy concoctions sound as if the entire orchestra was tripping on LSD, while the funkiness reminds listeners just how wide Morricone’s musical net was.
“Come Play With Me” (1968)
Better known as “Gracie Zia,” Salvatorre Samperi’s debut feature is now all but forgotten. Its positive remains are mostly emblematic in Morricone’s ridiculously fun-loving soundtrack, kicking of with the “Guerra E Pace, Pollo E Brace” and the combination of rhythmic percussion with what sounds like an entire chorus of children. “Inflicting pleasure” was part of the film’s marketing language —the story deals with an incestuous relationship between an aunt and her nephew— which describes Morricone’s main antiphon-like medley perfectly. And wait til you feast your ears on ‘Shake Introspettivo;’ with its snake-like synth, your repeat button’s gonna get abused like never before. “Come Play With Me” is also a fantastic early intro to the giallo side of Morricone, particularly with his use of disturbing lullabies.
“The Mercenary” (1968)
The second non-Sergio Leone Western that needs to be mentioned is another Sergio Corbucci film, and the task of choosing between this and “The Great Silence,” Corbucci’s other Western released in the same year, kept me up a few nights. After a few complete listens, I settled for “The Mercenary,” mostly because its signature whistle is the greatest whistle ever. With some help from long-time collaborator Bruno Nicolai, Morricone turned the “Il Mercenario” theme —especially the sonorous “L’Arena” variation that Tarantino repurposed— into one of his greatest Western compositions. Just try listening to that romantically melancholic guitar in “Liberta” without getting goose bumps.
“The Sicilian Clan” (1969)
Before “Once Upon A Time In America” and “The Untouchables,” Morricone stamped his ingenious penchant for melodious crime films in Henri Verneuil’s “The Sicilian Clan.” The film that inspired one of Morricone’s most recognizable pieces, most likely from its intimidating trio of suave poster-boys: Alain Delon, Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura. The jew’s-harps and whistles marry this crime caper with the mood of one of Morricone’s Westerns, but with only some graceful jazz (“Snack Bar”) acting as an interlude, the inimitable music for “The Sicilian Clan” thrives in restlessly paced pieces like “Tema Per Le Gofi” and, of course, the main ostinato that drips with sensual nostalgia and electric cool. Impossible not to hum for hours on end after listening to it.
Whether you know it by its Italian name, “Queimada” or its wonderfully to-the-point English title, you know that what this Gillo Pontecorvo film has besides one of the more incredible Marlon Brando performances is Ennio Morricone’s most emotionally rousing soundtrack. The opening canto of “Abolisson, abolisson!” brings to mind the revolutionary free spirit that Morricone had an incredible knack for translating into music —the louder it grows, the more emphatically your hairs stand up. As with most everything he conducted during this time period, Morricone captured the essence of a motion picture in notes, harmonies and arrangements. His ‘Jose Dolores’ theme is one of the best examples of simple chords conducted into something wholly profound.
“The Bird With The Crystal Plumage” (1970)
At the start of the ’70s, Italian cinema screens began to bleed giallo horror, and who was there to inject the spook into people’s imaginations more menacingly than your creepy neighbor’s porcelain doll collection? Only the most ubiquitous Italian film composer around, the man who was working at a staggering pace of 12-13 scores a year during this time. The first of Morricone’s unforgettable contributions to the genre came for Dario Argento’s debut feature (and one of his best) “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.” More likely than not, Morricone was inspired by Krzysztof Komeda’s lullaby composition in “Rosemary’s Baby” when he turned out his own eerily sublime la-la-la nursery rhyme for Argento, peppered with paranoid trumpets and xylophones, crystallizing the sensation that someone with evil intentions is standing right behind you.
“Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970)
Tricky, slick, slightly perverse and eternally tiptoeing above suspicion, Morricone’s score for Elio Petri’s Academy Award-winning satire is one of his most infectious melodies. “I had to write a kind of music for the grotesque with a folkish feel to it,” Morricone explains in this Criterion feature, and his combinations of the mandolin and jew’s-harp with typical orchestral instruments is second-to-none in terms of instilling a sense of devilish fun. Ever the experimenting avant-garde artist that he was during this early peak of his career, Morricone’s creativity with synthesizer sounds and his supernatural ear for whittling out musical hooks make “Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion” one of his most popular tunes, frequently heard in his live concerts.
Morricone was serving up scores like a bat out of hell in the early ’70s, so often the majesty of his music was light-years ahead of the actual film he composed it for. This is never more evident than with Jerzy Kawalerowicz’ “Maddalena,” a throwaway picture about a woman looking for love and finding it in a priest. It’s been more than 40 years, so it’s OK to admit that the only truly great thing to come out of the whole affair is Morricone’s eloquent and symphonic score. Reteaming with Edda Dell’Orso for the glorious 9-minute opener “Come Maddalena,” and composing “Chi Mai” (which would later be popularized even further by the BBC in “The Life And Times Of David Lloyd George”), Morricone punctuated what is perhaps his single most-prolific year with his signature fusion of jazz, choral hymns and endlessly resonant polyphonies.
“Lizard In A Woman’s Skin” (1971)
It’s paranoia central in the baroque hues that permeate Morricone’s giallo score for “Lizard In A Woman’s Skin,” which was reissued last year by record company Death Waltz with an appropriately stunning cover design. This Lucio Fulci cinematic nightmare inspired one of Morricone’s grandest compositions; a beautiful cacophony of jazz, funk, church organs, windpipes, whistles, and Edda Dell’Orso’s voice. These are elements that have been part and parcel of so many Morricone scores before it, yet through his surgical arrangement, they feel inexhaustibly fresh and seductive. Whether by the flutes of “La Lucertola,” the surf guitar of “Notte di giorno” or the dreamy plunge down the Fulci rabbit hole of “Spiriti,” this is another Morricone score that’ll make you think your stereo is possessed by some demon who’s got really, really, great taste in music.
“Cold Eyes Of Fear” (1971)
If you’re in the mood for Morricone’s most avant-garde side, the side that makes the most dissonant sounds in a David Lynch film sound like Buddy Holly, look no further than “Cold Eyes Of Fear.” Enzo Castellari’s thriller holds a wobbly candle to the other giallos of its time, but this mercurial, acid-jazzy soundtrack from the Maestro will crawl under your skin and make you walk on pins and needles for hours on end, with the cello chords and trumpets reoccurring in many a nightmare to come. Hands down the most purposefully disharmonious of Morricone’s scores, “Cold Eyes Of Fear” is staring into the cinematic abyss by way of sounds and chimes. It’s also one of the composer’s career highlights in giallo arrangement, starkly reminiscent of his early days as an avant-garde improvisator in Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza.
“Cat O’ Nine Tales” (1971)
In direct contrast to “Cold Eyes Of Fear,” Morricone’s compositions for “Cat O’ Nine Tails,” Dario Argento’s second film, is filled with beautiful, almost soulful harmonies, typified by the ‘Ninna Nanna’ main theme, where he again uses Dell’Orso’s vocal prowess to highly hypnotic effects. You’ll probably recognize the fear-inducing “Paranoia Prima” as it was re-appropriated by Tarantino in “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” while the rest of the score is littered with deep bass cello notes and the kind of background noise that paints a thousand dark pictures. By this time —and, no, it’s not a typo, we’re still in 1971— it was clear that Morricone didn’t only master and own the Western genre, but the primordial sounds of Italian slasher films as well.
“Duck, You Sucker!” (1971)
It’s not like he was all about giallos in ’71, though. Morricone was all about anything he could fit into his ridiculously condensed schedule. This included another virtuoso score for a Sergio Leone western, in this case “Duck, You Sucker!” (a.k.a. “A Fistful of Dynamite”). It could very well be the most capricious of Morricone’s Leone scores, with its unforgettable blend of the comical and operatic working wonders, as immediately heard in the film’s “Main Theme.” The swooning strings that take over at one point whisk you away into the magical world of movies, before Dell’Orso’s operatic mezzo-soprano adds an unanticipated layer. The composer himself described this movie in a Quietus interview, above any other, as a great example of his “mingling of tonal music and avant-garde music.”
“What Have You Done To Solange?” (1972)
Ahhh, that piano. Add another winning collaboration with Edda Dell’Orso in a giallo film that’s worth the mettle of a Morricone score. Massimo Dallamano’s “What Have You Done To Solange?” is imbibed in mystery, genuine thrills, and a kind of paranoia that’s tighter than piano wire. From its opening title theme, through the jazzy milieus of “Una Tromba E La Sua Notte,” and the carousel sounds of “Fragile Organetto,” the score is another subtly disjointed and provocative piece of film music that will instantly project images of Fabio Testi’s killer priest and Cristina Galbo’s Elizabeth for those who’ve seen the film, while beckoning those who haven’t to seek it out. Morricone’s score is so paralyzingly good here, it doesn’t even allow you to laugh at the unsubtle dubbing job.
This is another case of Morricone’s lesser-known music having been repurposed by Tarantino (this time in “Inglourious Basterds”) and if you’re thinking, “Did you just include everything QT repurposed on this list?” the answer is almost, but not because I set out to do it. Tarantino’s taste in music is formidable, regardless of how you feel about his work or the size of his ego, and while going through Morricone’s vast output, the stuff that sticks out is more often than not what stuck out to Tarantino himself. Though if Sergio Sollima’s “Revolver” was all about the emotionally blistering strings of ‘Un Amico,’ chances are it wouldn’t have made the cut. The 12-minute title-track has remarkable drive, with its layered horns and “Quasi Vivaldi” is a pleasurable little nudge to the famous composer.
The last of the giallos to feature on this list, “Spasmo” stands out from the rest with its beautiful “Bambole” and “Spasmo” movements. By 1974, Morricone had obviously mastered the giallo scores, thanks to his work with Argento and Dallamano, but he still had one mind-bogglingly sensation of a score left in him for Umberto Lenzi. Dreadfully romantic and emotional, the arrangements of synthesizer melodies, human humming and wind instruments resonate well beyond the device that’s playing the music (or, indeed, the screen). Blending the fantastical with the real, as is the giallo tradition, the mixture of the synthesized and the natural in Morricone’s score takes front stage in “Spasmo,” probably one of the most beautiful scores ever composed for a horror film.
“Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977)
From the beautiful to the absolutely demented, while still playing in the same sandbox. “Exorcist II” is an unmitigated disaster of a film, a poor man’s sequel by the otherwise-great John Boorman. But as is the case with a few others on this list, behind a terrible film there is sometimes a tremendously good score, which Morricone, above any other film composer, proved time and time again, with shining examples like this. Starting off nice and beautiful with “Regan’s Theme,” it’s not long before ‘Exorcist II’ degenerates into madness with the chants of “Pazuz”’ and the female wails of “Little Afro-Flemish Mass.” Once you get to the bonkers “Magic And Ecstasy,” it hits you: this is the craziest we’ve ever heard Morricone. And it’s amazing.
“Days Of Heaven” (1978)
Morricone’s first of five Academy Award nominations (all five of which he’ll end up losing: for shame!), “Days Of Heaven” is one of those dream director-composer collaborations. Working with Terrence Malick for the first time, Morricone produced one of his greatest American scores, one that perfectly compliments Malick’s deeply felt thematic tendencies and Nestor Almendros’ sublime cinematography. The dreamy opener “Aquarium” isn’t a Morricone original, but sets the tone beautifully for the iconic title track full of nostalgic longing, the lilting flutes of “Happiness” and the wind-like sway of strings in “Harvest.” All creating a composition that’s the stuff of movie music magic. And here’s something to feed your anticipation: Morricone and Malick are set to re-team for the director’s long-awaited “Voyage Of Time” documentary.
“The Thing” (1982)
I know that this score was nominated for a Razzie, okay? But screw that, because “The Thing” has through time and good sense become recognized as one of Ennio Morricone’s eeriest pieces. John Carpenter famously decided not to score this particular film, instead commissioning the Maestro for the job (clearly as a fan of the Italian’s giallo work). Though legend has it that Carpenter wasn’t all that happy with Morricone’s work, only using bits and pieces of it in the final film, the originally released OST features tracks that Morricone himself selected. Clear your mind of the background noise surrounding the release and enjoy one of Morricone’s moodiest scores, beautifully evoking the wintry isolation of the film’s setting and the phantasmagorical suspense prevalent throughout. Recommended with headphones on and lights off.
“Once Upon A Time In America” (1984)
What ended up being the final collaboration between two giants of 21st century cinema and dear friends, “Once Upon A Time In America” ranks very high among Morricone’s greatest hits. It’s one of a few examples where you can randomly shuffle to any track and it will be instantly recognizable as the music Morricone created for Leone’s masterpiece; as emotionally epic as the film itself, it is the iconic use of the main pan-flute (listen to the opening of “Childhood Memories” for an especially piercing example) and ‘Deborah’s Theme’ which immortalize the score. Just as he did with ‘West,’ Leone played Morricone’s score on set in order to get the actors in the mood of the film, which sort of makes Morricone a co-director. A lovely thought for a breathtaking cinematic experience.
“The Mission” (1986)
“I definitely felt that I should have won for ‘The Mission,’” is what a possibly cantankerous Morricone told The Guardian in a 2001 interview. And, of course he should’ve won the Academy Award for this expressive and operatic score. “Gabriel’s Oboe” is a 2-and-some minute discovery of what heaven must sound like, while his sensibilities towards creating forever-memorable title themes continues with “The Mission,” as lovely a musical arrangement as he’s ever done before or since. The story goes that, in a rare moment of self-doubt, Morricone found Roland Joffe’s images too powerful and that he thought his music wouldn’t do them justice. See? Even geniuses can be wrong.
“The Untouchables” (1987)
Brian De Palma and Ennio Morricone got along swimmingly, and collaborated successfully again for “Casualties Of War” in 1989, but it’s the Oscar-nominated score for “The Untouchables” that bore the juiciest fruit out of their partnership. Morricone started to slow down with film scores after 1985, focusing on live concertos instead, but as with the remaining soundtracks on the list, he was still very much in his element when he had to add accompanying music to a moving image. The stirringly victorious “Untouchables” theme sounds too damn good once the crescendo trumpets hit to ever be cheesy, while ‘Al Capone’s’ theme fits Robert De Niro’s brilliant comic performance like a glove.
“Cinema Paradiso” (1988)
Morricone’s name is mostly associated with crime epics, Westerns and giallos, but it’s scores like the one he composed and orchestrated for “Cinema Paradiso” that make one take a step back and realize that in fact there was nothing this Maestro couldn’t swing his baton at. It was his first score for Giuseppe Tornatore, a collaborative partnership that would turn out a couple of more unforgettable scores to come, and much like the film itself, all the pieces are a reflection of a bottomless love for the sweeping powers of cinema itself. The string permutations that wraps the listener with encompassing warmth, as heard in the “Title Theme” and “Love Theme,” will stun you into silence.
Roman Polanski’s “Frantic” is often forgotten when listing out the director’s greatest films, but it holds a special place in my heart. When I re-visited Morricone’s score (sadly, the only time the two worked together), I was immediately reminded of the mystery and the paranoia experienced by Harrison Ford’s bamboozled doctor. It’s one of the Maestro’s most profoundly subtle works: it’s expertly moody, with an absolutely incredible use of accordion sounds that come in and out, drowned by the high-strung strings. It’s a fusion of giallo sensibilities he’d mastered in the ’70s with the more classical orchestral work he was doing at the time, and the result is another wondrous score one can get completely lost in.
“Legend Of 1900” (1998)
By the time the ’90s hit, Morricone wasn’t nearly as prolific as he’d been in the past, and while he still made the majority of Hollywood’s composers look like children banging on pots and pans, it’s clear the peak of his career was behind him (likely reached, if one were to trace it, in “Once Upon A Time In America”). Having said that, he was still inspired to produce some gorgeous pieces of music, more classical than ever, for his good friend Giuseppe Tornatore. For the “Legend Of 1900,” his second Golden Globe win, he dazzled with passionate piano compositions and woeful strings that beautifully captured the spirit of the musical prodigy at its centre.
His fifth and final Academy Award nomination before voters realized that an Honorary Oscar was the only way to save face, “Malena” is the greatest piece of work Morricone composed in the autumnal part of his career. He found a way to musically describe the seductive powers of Monica Bellucci, who plays a sensual woman in a small backward Italian town. The emotional rollercoaster that is the film —both a coming-of-age tale and a social commentary on intolerance of narrow-minded communities— bares its soul and essence in Morricone’s music. The composer digs into his arsenal of instrumental arrangements and creates something jovial, inimitable and sublime.
Since this list was wrangled out from more than 500 film compositions, there can easily be another 30 Ennio Morricone scores added and something would still feel missing. Try as I might to do justice considering his furious output, it was with an incredibly heavy heart that I had to exclude some of his stuff from the ’60s and ’70s, a period in which he did little wrong. Of these, “A Fistful Of Dollars,” the infectiously poppy “Slalom,” “Death Rides A Horse” (another Western gem from which Tarantino borrowed), “The Five Man Army,” the offbeat and kooky “Danger: Diabolik,” Corbucci’s “The Great Silence” and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Hawks And The Sparrows” stand out.
In the ’70s, there’s “Violent City,” “Two Mules For Sister Sara,” “The Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion,” “The Fifth Cord,” “Vamos a Matar, Compañeros,” “Working Class Goes To Heaven,” and “Who Saw Her Die?” that all missed entries by a cat’s whisker. His 1971 scores for “Veruschka” and “Sacco e Vanzetti” are popular among diehards, but as good as they really are, I found that I couldn’t replace them with any of the others. Was I wrong? You tell me!
Morricone’s ’80s and ’90s, though not nearly as prolific as the first two decades, still have “White Dog,” “Red Sonja,” “Casualties of War,” “Bugsy” (the only Academy Award nomination not included in the main list), “Hamlet,” “Wolf,” and “Lolita” as some of the stuff that was seriously considered for main entry.