My mother has never seen a Spaghetti Western in her life, or any other film that has Ennio Morricone as a composer. But she has heard the theme music of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly without being conscious about it. Everyone has. It's a cultural touchstone, parodied, mimicked and paid tribute to an endless number of times. This morning, when I woke up to the news of Morricone's passing away, and I told my mother about it, I had to simply play the music and she knew it. If The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the granddaddy of all movie themes, Morricone was the granddaddy of all movie score composers, who worked with everyone from Polanski to De Palma to Tarantino. It's an incredible legacy, spanning more than 50 years and over 500 films and TV work, with two Oscars, and Grammys, impossible to be summed up in a listicle. But here goes:
The music in the earlier American Westerns were more classically oriented. Morricone's work in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy gave it a hard edge. The theme in A Fistful of Dollars begins with a whistle, beautiful twangy guitars and gets into a galloping rhythm. They turn progressively inventive, and dark, in the next two instalments. We now have sound effects—a gunshot—integrated into the theme for For A Few Dollars More, a variation on the earlier theme. By the time we arrive at the theme of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly we have the gunshot, the whip, the wah-wahs, a coyote howl, an iconic piece of music as evocative of a larger-than-life heroism as it is of a landscape that is desolate, brutal and epic. In other words, cinematic.
The ending of Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso is one of the most moving finales in cinema history. The visual of Salvatore sinking into his seat in disbelief as he sees his adolescent wet-dreams being projected onto the big screen in his private theatre–a phantom reel from the vaults, a gift from an old friend–is elevated by Morricone's stirring score: Provincial sentimentality sprinkled over swelling orchestral music aching with nostalgia.
Morricone's relatively less known works in the Italian mystery-horror–'Giallo'–genre give us an idea of how wide ranging his oeuvre is. This piece from Giallo master Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, from his Animal Trilogy, is like an eerie nursery rhyme, a deceitful fairytale with a dark undergrowth. He whips up the spirit of the genre in a minimalist way: a la-la-la in a girl's voice, a tinkle of synth, and dreamy harmonies.
Morricone fanboy director Quentin Tarantino has been using his music in bits and pieces (from Kill Bill to Django Unchained) till he roped him in to do a full-blooded score for The Hateful Eight, which won him a much belated Oscars in 2016. This theme recalls the composer's work in John Carpenter's The Thing, and is a reminder of how masterful he is in conjuring up atmospheric dread.
A bit of cheating here. Instead of Morricone's original "Death Theme" for Brian De Palma's Al Capone picture, The Untouchables, which engulfs you in a sadness with its melancholy soprano sax solo, here's cellist Yo-Yo Ma's tribute (from the album Yo-Yo Ma plays Morricone), which engulfs you in another kind of sadness.