The Legend Of Ennio Morricone And Dice-Master Quentin Tarantino

Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the original score.

Throughout his six-decade career, Italian composer and conductor Ennio Morricone has scribed a mind-boggling collection of music. Depending on who you ask, he is credited with scoring more than 500 film and television productions, 100 classical works for the concert hall, and innumerable stacks of jazz and pop arrangements for ensembles and recording artists around the globe. He’s a musical swiss-army knife capable of composing any style, flavor, or genre of music with an encyclopedic understanding of its functional support of visual mediums.

Morricone was a musical prodigy, having entered the prestigious National Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome when he was only 12-years old. He studied trumpet performance, harmony, arranging, conducting, and eventually composition with Goffredo Petrassi. Upon graduation, Morricone lurked in the shadows for several years arranging music for radio broadcasts and ghost-writing for other more well-established composers including Mario Nascimbene who collaborated with Morricone on the score for Morte di Un Amico (Death of a Friend, 1959) directed by Franco Rossi. Although uncredited for his contributions officially, this is widely regarded as Morricone’s first film score. Two years later, Morricone authored his first solo score for the film Il Federale (The Fascist, 1961) directed by Luciano Salce.

Six decades later, at the robust age of 87, Morricone is still a busy bee in the film and television world. He has summited the highest peaks of both the European and American film industries and continues to garner worldwide acclaim for his mellifluous creations. The overwhelming majority of Morricone’s work accompanies Italian film and television productions that are largely unknown to audiences in the United States; however, Morricone’s genius has revealed itself in a number of Hollywood-based productions including The Thing (1982), White Dog (1982), Red Sonja (1985), The Untouchables (1987) and the highly revered The Mission (1986). Perhaps his most beloved score, for the Italian masterpiece Cinema Paradiso (1988) directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, transcended geographical borders touching the hearts of audiences on both continents as an Academy Award recipient for Best Foreign Language Film in 1990.

Even if you were to disregard the towering mountain of Morricone’s arranging and concert hall work, his 500-plus credits in film and television alone is difficult to comprehend. By comparison, his most prolific American contemporaries, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, each accumulated approximately 200 and 150 film and television credits respectively. These two composers’ collected film and television works combined still probably wouldn’t outnumber Morricone’s complete oeuvre. In order to achieve his prodigious output, Morricone has had to compose music for almost ten films or television series every year over the last six decades! Even the most prolific composers today have difficulty contemplating such a brisk laborious pace.

It’s not uncommon to find fledgling filmmakers flocking to aging legends who defined the very films that influenced them to pick up a camera in the first place. In the last few years of his career, after he was ostracized from Hollywood for his belligerent and erratic behavior, Bernard Herrmann attracted the attention of two young New York City filmmakers who leapt at the opportunity to employ one of the most important collaborators of their greatest cinematic influence, Alfred Hitchcock. Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma harnessed Herrmann’s genius early in their filmmaking profession, effectively resurrecting the elderly composer’s heralded career while firmly establishing impressive starts to their own.

Quentin Tarantino is another filmmaker who sometimes dips in the pools of the past searching for a creative charge while honoring the influences which catalyze his craft. Tarantino’s films are ripe with references running roughshod throughout his collective work. Each movie he directs is layered and packed with an encyclopedic array of homages culled from the most obscure titles of subversive cinema the world has to offer. Before becoming a filmmaker, Tarantino spent five years working in a video rental store in Manhattan Beach, California, where he frequently feasted upon its inventory with a voracious and insatiable appetite. He nurtured a proclivity for back-alley subgenres including Italian giallo, '50s pulp noir, '70s blaxpoitation, Japanese samurai flicks, Hong Kong martial arts movies, and most importantly, Italian “spaghetti” westerns.

Of all Tarantino’s films, nothing has influenced them more than the spaghetti western. In 2012, Tarantino was quoted in the New York Times as quipping, “I’ve always been influenced by the spaghetti western. I used to describe Pulp Fiction as a rock ’n’ roll spaghetti western with the surf music standing in for Ennio Morricone.” These Italian-made “American” westerns helmed by cinematic legends including Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, 1966), Sergio Corbucci, (Navajo Joe, 1966), and Giulio Petroni (Death Rides A Horse, 1967), were the textbooks of Tarantino’s unorthodox film schooling. The man behind the music of many of these films, was Ennio Morricone.

While on break from shooting Inglourious Basterds in 2009, Quentin Tarantino sat down with Sebastian Haselbeck outside of Berlin and revealed his personal list of the top twenty best spaghetti westerns ever made (www.spaghetti-western.net). One thing immediately jumps out from this list. If you look closely, you’ll notice that Ennio Morricone composed the scores for twelve of the twenty films!

  1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)*
  2. For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965)*
  3. Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
  4. The Mercenary (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)*
  5. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)*
  6. A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964)*
  7. Day of Anger (Tonino Valerii, 1967)
  8. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)*
  9. Navajo Joe (Sergio Corbucci,1966)*
  10. The Return of Ringo (Duccio Tessar, 1965)*
  11. The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima, 1966)*
  12. A Pistol for Ringo (Duccio Tessari, 1965)*
  13. The Dirty Outlaws (Franco Rossetti, 1967)
  14. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)*
  15. The Grand Duel (Giancarlo Santi, 1972)
  16. Shoot the Living, Pray for the Dead (Giuseppe Vari, 1971)
  17. Tepepa (Giulio Petroni, 1968)*
  18. The Ugly Ones (Eugenio Martin, 1966)
  19. Viva Django! (Ferdinando Baldi, 1967)
  20. Machine Gun Killers (Paolo Bianchini, 1968)

* = scored by Ennio Morricone

Tarantino has written and directed movies squarely targeting a variety of his favorite cult genres; however, he’s never made what could be referred to as a straight-up “spaghetti” western…until now.

The Hateful Eight (2015) is gaining attention as Tarantino’s most direct and personal homage to his favorite cinematic subgenre, the spaghetti western. Doused with all the usual crossover trimmings, it’s a story nestled amongst the pantheon of great spaghetti western narratives including larger-than-life characters, revenge, killing, greed, vainglory, and enough tensive violence to crack a bank safe in half. The one nugget of news regarding production that piqued everyone’s curiosity and excitement was the announcement that Tarantino was going to commission Ennio Morricone to compose the score for the film!

The significance of this pronouncement is remarkable on two fronts. First, fans of Tarantino and Morricone will surely celebrate the cinematic wet-dream of a true artistic collaboration between these two imaginative giants. What could be more enthralling than watching (and listening to) Tarantino’s first true spaghetti western scored by the man who defined what spaghetti westerns sound like in the first place? Secondly, and probably the most consequential, Tarantino will be collaborating with Morricone on an original film score for the very first time, marking the only time that Tarantino has ever worked with anybody to compose an original underscore for his movies.

Throughout his filmmaking career, Tarantino has always taken a “needle-drop” approach to music. This term denotes the practice of splicing and placing pre-existing pieces into key functional moments within a film without relying upon a composer to pen original material from scratch. For example, Tarantino used several cues from Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) composed by Ennio Morricone in Django Unchained (2012); however, he also commissioned Morricone to scribe an original song entitled “Ancora Qui” which he co-wrote with Elisa Toffoli. The song was then at Tarantino’s beckoned call to serve wherever the cocksure director demanded. Likewise, Tarantino edited in music from several other Morricone scores for Inglourious Basterds. This practice was always about maintaining strict control over his films.

In 2009 Tarantino disrupted the industry waters a bit while lecturing to a master class at the Festival de Cannes, “I don’t normally use original score. I don’t trust any composer to do it. The music is so important. The idea of paying a guy and showing him your movie at the end and then he comes over it; I would never give anybody that kind of responsibility. I have one of the best soundtrack collections. That’s how I write it, that’s how I design it; I go into my soundtrack collection and I start visualizing the sequences. I cut out the composers.”

To complicate matters further, Morricone was none-to-pleased with the reckless abuse of his music which was stitched and sewn together like patchwork in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. The chasm widened when Morricone publicly lambasted Tarantino for his callous and disrespectful approach to music. The Hollywood Reporter quoted Morricone revealing, “I wouldn’t like to work with him again, on anything…He said last year he wanted to work with me again ever since Inglourious Basterds, but I told him I couldn’t, because he didn’t give me enough time.” Morricone was disheartened that Tarantino edited “music in his films without coherence.”

So what changed? It’s obvious Tarantino would commission one of the most influential musical figures of his film-loving life to scribe an original score for the very genre of film that made this composer famous. Of all the music Ennio Morricone composed for other directors, will it finally be Tarantino’s turn to grab himself a bona fide Morricone score of his own? Did Tarantino acquiesce his previous stance and allow a trustworthy Morricone the artistic freedom and necessary time to actually compose an original score for his film? Or is the unruffled Morricone surrendering to Tarantino’s cut-and-dice approach to music in order to satiate the director’s demands for absolute control?

In November 2015, Tarantino revealed one more interesting twist to this musical puzzle. Not only is he weaving together original music from Morricone along with various vintage pop songs from Tarantino’s archives, but he’s also using never-before-heard selections from Morricone’s unused score from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Morricone had scribed a smorgasbord of varying pieces so that Carpenter could pick and choose exactly what he wanted as if he was trolling a grand dinner buffet. Much of this music has never been heard…until now.

Both Morricone and Tarantino’s artistic style is the inclusion of every style. It’s their shared eclecticism and depth of expression that makes them a match made in heaven. You can wager that cinephiles will be listening to their collaborative fruits with baited ears. If Tarantino stays his hand, I’m sure it will be glorious and if Tarantino does allow Morricone the artistic freedom to score his film, and it satisfies the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences requirements for nomination, you can bet a bar of gold that Morricone’s name will be on the list of nominees.

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