Jamie Sellers pays a personal tribute to one of the most distinctive voices film music has ever heard.
I can’t remember when I first saw Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I must’ve been pretty small and now I’m pretty tall. But as a child usually only interested in the chart pop music of the day, its curious title music stuck with me, like the James Bond music I already knew. I felt I understood it, even if I couldn’t sing along to it very easily. Much as I adored and waited in front of the TV for the themes to my favourite shows (The Persuaders, Catweazle, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet), I was to find that going to the cinema was very different.
When you’re eight or so, it’s invariably Disney on the big screen, and that means a lot of songs. But then I saw Live and Let Die (my first “A” film), and something clicked. Firstly of course it was the way that the orchestration crept slyly in and then exploded over the opening titles, filling the auditorium and setting you for the next couple of hours. But it wasn’t just that. As we were introduced to Bond’s sexy accomplices and adversaries, vehicles going high speed where they really shouldn’t, and our hero uttering countless of what I later learned were called double entendres (and which had my adult supervisors guffawing throughout), there was more music, playing during key moments of the action: variations on the theme music, and other short, dramatic phrases repeating at intervals. This was film music, and it was the first time I had noticed it.
I started to watch movies at my older brother’s place – mostly late night horror double bills, but also 1960s westerns. He may even have owned a budget album of re-recordings of some of the “Dollars” music from the Leone films. I do know he had John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy record, but that was peppered with groovy late ‘60s psych-lite pop. Had he not owned that; it wouldn’t even have occurred to me then that you could buy this music. Like James Bond, the westerns had very distinctive scores. The music was funny, with boings and clangs and whistles and little bursts of twanged guitar. Like Peter and the Wolf, the characters all seemed to have their own signature sound.
Your schooldays trail off in your memory, an endless stream of discoveries, musical and otherwise. Events that all seem far apart now from one another, were in reality occurring on an almost daily basis. It’s amazing to think of all the sounds and images you’re bombarded with for the first time, and that you have to either process or put aside for another time.
I remember seeing the theme music to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in a record shop, on a 45. It was by a geezer called Hugo Montenegro, I observed. I thought buying film or TV music would be a bit naff, though. Especially when my friend, who didn’t buy any pop records, grabbed himself the James Bond theme at Woolworths’ record counter. What a sap, I thought. We later wrote a fanzine together.
Fast forward. The pop music you grew up with dies, but much of it you keep fondly with you. You read the weekly music papers, you listen to more grown up music, you find you can buy all sorts of stuff you didn’t realise was out there. Discoveries continue, as one thing leads to another. At some stage you realise that Hugo Montenegro’s hit single was a cover version. The composer’s name is Ennio Morricone. You watch more films. Lots of films. Hollywood, European arthouse and horror, and you notice that much of the most wonderful music that introduces these films and seeps in and out throughout is by the same composers: Bernard Herrmann, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones… and especially John Barry, and Ennio Morricone. You start to get smart-alecky about it, identifying the composer before their name appears on the credits, recognising signature sounds. All of this is pre-internet, pre-music streaming, and before there were any handy resources to help you on your path to film music aficionado-dom.
If memory serves, it was in 2000 at the National Film Theatre in London, where Christopher Frayling was touting his new Sergio Leone biography, that I first got to see one of the Leone/Morricone westerns, restored, on the big screen (I’d caught Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America, on release back in 1984, but the penny had by then yet to fully drop). 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and all, is a sweeping epic, even more so when restored in its original longer cut. I would say, as a rule of thumb, beware of sweeping epics, but this one is a thing of languorous beauty, with mesmerising overhead shots, and good and evil writ reliably large. As Leone himself alluded though, it wouldn’t be half the experience it is without Morricone’s incredible score. And believe me, it isn’t half the experience watching it on telly either.
Then in 2001 at the Barbican in London, I got to see the maestro in concert, conducting the Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta. A generous greatest hits package to leave most greatest hits packages lying in the gutter weeping at their own musical inadequacy. Ennio Morricone composed some of the most deeply moving music of the modern age, as well as some of the craziest and goofiest, the catchiest pop, delightful vocal ensemble music, ground-breaking electronics and harsh Avant Garde noise, and who knows what else, and at one stage was knocking out scores approximately one a month, working with orchestras and with small groups. In his 1960s heyday, he was really having fun, displaying a cockeyed pop sensibility that birthed many of the weirdest three-minute gems of the past 60 years.
It’s hard to keep count of his scores. There could be as many as 500 or more of his children out there, running around, being discovered on a daily basis by audiences new and old. He painted sound onto westerns – so many westerns, but also romantic dramas, horror, thrillers, sci-fi, erotica, comedy, historical epics, and TV movies too.
When his death was announced, a number of friends of mine started posting their favourite Morricone music on Facebook throughout the day. A hundred or so posts in, and I’ve yet to see the same piece of music flagged up more than once. Start discovering, keep discovering… I’ve included just a few I’m particularly fond of. It’s hard to choose – there’s so much quality and variety.