This Sunday, the Oscars will honor Ennio Morricone with an honorary Academy Award, only the second ever given to a composer. The first went to Alex North, the prolific composer whose score for A Streetcar Named Desire helped bring jazz into the vocabulary of film music. Like Morricone, North was nominated multiple times without receiving the award and will forever be associated with a pop hit made famous by somebody else. For North it's "Unchained Melody," a tune originally composed for the virtually forgotten 1955 film Unchained immortalized by The Righteous Brothers. For Morricone it's the theme to Sergio Leone's spaghetti western classic The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly that's probably going through your head right now, most likely in the version popularized by the American composer Hugo Montenegro.
Both North and Morricone undeniably deserve the recognition. So why did it take so long? With North it seems mostly a matter of bad luck. Respected for his work in film and on Broadway, he simply lost 14 times. Morricone's a different story. There's a telling anecdote in Christopher Frayling's Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death about the first meeting between the longtime collaborators, a meeting that took place only after the studios pressured Leone to work with Morricone. In Leone's words:
I said, being frank about it, "Your music for Duello nel Texas was just about as unoriginal as it could be A watered-down version of Dimitri Tiomkin." To my astonishment, he concurred: "I couldn't agree more. But they commissioned me to write a watered-down version of Dimitri Tiomkin. So that's what I gave them. A composer has to earn a living.
This was early in Morricone's career when earning a living didn't come as easily as it would later on. But it says a lot about how he worked then, and continues to work. Ask Morricone how many films he's scored since he began film work in 1959 and he won't be able to tell you. The Internet Movie Database lists over 500 film and TV titles, but who really knows? Morricone works fast and in his most prolific decades–the '60s through the '80s–he frequently worked on low-budget genre pictures that the Italian film churned out at factory pace.
If Morricone has an analog in the acting world, it's Michael Caine, a great actor who always goes where the work takes him and almost always improves whatever he's in, however embarrassing. Caine, it should remembered the man who couldn't accept his Oscar for Hannah And Her Sisters in person because he was off filming Jaws: The Revenge. And just as Caine's filmography is littered with titles like On Deadly Ground and The Hand next to The Cider House Rules and The Man Who Would Be King, Morricone's is filled with the likes of Holocaust 2000 (an Omen rip-off starring Kirk Douglas) and Who Saw Her Die? ) next to 1900 and Days Of Heaven.
But the same thing that makes Morricone somewhat disreputable –that willingness to work wherever he's wanted–is part of his genius. When the Morricone reel runs on Sunday, it will undoubtedly touch on his most acclaimed scores: The Leone westerns, Days Of Heaven, The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, Bugsy, The Battle Of Algiers. But here's the thing: With the exception of his Leone collaborations–the kind of rare fusion of directorial and musical vision only enjoyed by Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Federico Fellini and Nino Rota, and a few lucky others–they're not appreciably better than Morricone's work for, say, the Jean-Louis Trintignant thriller Without Apparent Motive, which creates a air of dread out of an eerie whistle, an ominous cello, an incongruously jaunty horn line and a creepy rattle. Or Un Bellisimo Novembre or The Fifth Cord or… well, about half the lurid Italian films made between 1963 and 1984 that Morricone gave a sense of romance, grandeur, and soul-threatening evil that they would never have enjoyed without him.
The deeper you get into the Morricone catalog the greater the rewards, even if not all his music rewards all listeners the same way. There are some tracks that challenge even the most dedicated completist. Take the eight torturous minutes of "Veni Sancte Spiritus" from Il Sorriso Del Grande Tetatore for instance. It has a disco beat, what sounds like a helium-enhanced children's choir, and every once in a while it just stops cold for some satanic chanting. But while the willingness to combine seemingly incompatible–and sometimes dissonant–elements sounds all wrong here, it's the willingness to try it that makes it a Morricone piece, just as elsewhere he would work combinations of rock, samba, Italian folk music, classical themes, and whatever else occurred to him with great, frequently sublime, success. If the jaunty theme to Slalom doesn't work for you, the chorus of war cries from Navajo Joe might.
Where other composers would be content simply to repeat themselves given such a heavy workload, Morricone mostly took the opportunity try whatever outré notion occurred to him. And if that didn't work, he'd just try something different the next time around. There was always a next time, another film needing music and another one after that. A composer has to earn a living, after all.
Morricone's enjoyed the career of an experimental composer while letting the film industry foot the bill. He'll walk off with that industry's highest honor on Sunday, but it's a career built largely on traditionally dishonorable work. There's no real contradiction there, not in Morricone's world at least. It's just another case of elements that don't belong together being joined in a weird, unshakable, unchained melody.
A Fistful Of Film Music: The Ennio Morricone Anthology: This two disc-set compiled by Rhino in 1995 is a neat survey of Morricone's career, from the early Westerns through Bugsy. It hits all the highlights, but also a fair number of unexpected tracks.
Any of Morricone's scores for Sergio Leone, namely A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, Once Upon A Time In The West, Duck, You Sucker, Once Upon A Time In America, and the Leone-produced My Name Is Nobody: After Morricone won Leone's trust, the director never worked with anyone best, even commissioning music and filming scenes set the rhythms Morricone supplied. No, that's not how you're supposed to make movies, but it worked for them.
Morricone 2000: This import from the Dagored label is worth the effort of tracking down. It hits highlights from some of the more obscure corners of the Morricone catalog with a special ephasis on the eerie and the romantic, and the places those two meet.
Crime And Dissonance: Compiled by Mike Patton, this two disc set emphasizes the more experimental aspects of Morricone's craft. It can be rough sledding at time, but for those looking to see how far out on the edge Morricone could go, this is one-stop shopping.