Audio/Visual: Ennio Morricone and Me
Ennio Morricone turned 81 last Tuesday, and more than a few people celebrated his brilliant career spanning decades. Reading up on the famous composer, I discovered that he began as a jazz musician writing and arranging pop music for RCA’s branch in Italy. This makes sense but also came as an immense surprise to me because he is so known as a composer. Morriconeâ€™s success is in part due to his versatility and accessibility, but what I feel makes Morricone a true master is the legendary passion which he embraces in his role as both film score composer and (more importantly) a musician bringing imagination to life.
My first encounter with Morricone was with DePalmaâ€™s THE UNTOUCHABLES. His work on that film is a perfect example of Morriconeâ€™s admirable ability in style and concept. His experience with other genres of films were likely helpful in devising a proper score for the film, but more than anything, the music accompanying DePalmaâ€™s intense gangster flick felt as natural as any music created by a composer who had worked in that genre before (Ennio had scored only one crime film prior, 1973â€™s REVOLVER/BLOOD IN THE STREETS). Where Morriconeâ€™s style had been heavily influenced by his Italian roots, THE UNTOUCHABLES required a distinct atmosphere evocative of the filmâ€™s Prohibition-era setting. Morricone delivered a score not only brilliantly capable but one earning him a Grammy nomination and his second Oscar nomination (the previous being for the Dust Bowl drama DAYS OF HEAVEN)
However, as much as I adore Morriconeâ€™s later work, my admiration for his talent derives almost entirely from a series of films he did in the early 1970s when he and the brilliant Sergio Leone were working separately. An up-and-coming director named Dario Argento was due to helm THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, a remake of the little known 1958 suspense film SCREAMING MIMI. I don’t know the exact details surrounding the unholy pairing of Argento and Morricone, but it is my favorite combination of director and composer I’ve ever witnessed. The fact that it is a ultra violent suspense film with a predictable plot and at best tolerable acting makes it clear just how intensely powerful the combination is. I cannot elaborate here on the score itself; I can’t do justice to the hair-raising crescendos and awesome depth of its wildly imaginative power. It must be heard.
The incredible success of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE brought Argento a volume of international praise unheard from a debut European director working in the typically trashy suspense/horror genre, no less. Outside of Argento’s arduous filmcraft, it was Morricone’s mystical new reinvention buoying the film’s atmosphere. Matching, scene for scene, the surreal and stylistic imagery Morricone delved into the realms of aural witchcraft and came back with a score that, unlike his previous pieces, worked even better when experienced outside the film itself. To note that until this point, the only thing Morricone had scored remotely similar was DANGER: DIABOLIK the year prior. My suspicion is after Morricone produced a largely successful score for the famously absurd DANGER: DIABOLIK, Morricone was recommended to Argento by that film’s director and Argento’s mentor, Mario Bava. DANGER: DIABOLIK was an odd choice for Morricone, and I imagine Ennio may have been a fan of the popular Italian comic book which the film was based on.
The pairing of Argento and Morricone was brought together again for Argento’s next film, THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS, and while this film was not as critically acclaimed as Argento’s debut, Morricone’s score stood out as another intense work building on the themes explored in THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. I did not expect this. My assumption was that Morricone’s work on the first film was an experimental fluke and he would return to a more conventional, orthodox style serving the films suspenseful structure rather than acting as its own individual work of art intertwined with the visual half of the medium. I could not have been more wrong and consider myself lucky I watched the Animal Trilogy back to back because taking them in that way heightened my appreciation of the astounding art on display.
Morricone’s work during this period was so experimental and progressive that much of it is better experienced outside the visual medium and I would recommend listening to the music before watching to emphasize how keenly important and distinct the musical element is in these films. It could even be said that the musician may have been better off producing what he was making outside of the film industry entirely during this time, thereby removing whatever impediments the films themselves might have presented. What wouldn’t I give to hear Morricone’s take on the progressive music in Italy occurring at the time (the group “Magma” was paralleling Morricone’s explorations in that era and would have been an ideal fit for his incomparable compositions).
I found Morricone’s third collaboration with Argento was both their most challenging and most rewarding even though it also highlighted their shifting attitudes and what would mark the end of this era in Morricone’s career. At this point, the two artists had very different ideas of what belonged in the film and what did not. While the director’s vision was becoming more and more abstract, the composer sought a narrative element, some of his pieces from the film acting more as cues than active elements of the entire film’s presentation. It became obvious where the two men were headed; Argento would later helm another trilogy, this time consisting of surreal, phantasmagorical horror that used the colorful, synthesizer-laden music of Goblin, while Morricone turned away from the horror and suspense genre entirely to focus on crime and drama. The compromise found in the score of this film, FOUR FLIES ON GRAY VELVET, was not as bombastic as what was created for the two films prior, but thanks to Argento’s guidance, it was a success that summoned chills and ethereal elements as vital as anything from CAT O’ NINE TAILS or THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.
It was my intent with this article to highlight this trilogy, dubbed the “Animal Trilogy” by film enthusiasts, as a great example of why Morricone is such a valuable treasure. Rarely do modern composers step out of their comfort zones and almost never do they succeed as immensely as Morricone did. Much has been said of the composer’s famous works in the Spaghetti Western genre and his later era music so highly praised by the Academy. And when those most familiar with Argento think of his music, they recall the lurid tones of Goblin. But step outside the musics presence in the film, take it into the context of Morricone’s career, compare it to the ouvre of most modern film composers, and these three scores stand as a great example of his immense talent in bringing to life the imagination of both the imagined world of the films he scores and, perhaps more importantly, the depths of his own creative realm.
I’m including here a link to the Amazon page where you can purchase the Trilogy set that includes most of the really great passages and pieces, though what I’d really like to see is complete scores from each film. Either way, I also suggest purchasing the Trilogy and watching them back to back.