What goes into the making of a great film score? And how does a director/composer team like David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, or Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, form such a perfect partnership? Several days ago, we brought you video of Badalementi in a spirited, detailed recreation of how he and Lynch composed the unforgettable Twin Peaks’ themes, without which, I’d argue, there may have been no Twin Peaks.
Likewise, without the music of Morricone behind them, Leone’s spare, stylish, hard-boiled-yet-comic westerns may never have spearheaded the almost classical genre of the “Spaghetti Western,” known just as often for its music as for its visual language.
What does Morricone have to say about this? Precious little. Or so discovered Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen when he interviewed Morricone for Premiere magazine in August of 1989. Fagen is well known for his obsessive knowledge of culture high and low and his hip, theoretical bent. Morricone, we learn, works more intuitively. But the results are the same. We may equally find ourselves humming the refrain to “Peg” as the theme to The Good, the Bad & the Ugly.
And we may find ourselves pleasurably analyzing “Peg”’s ironic redeployment of soft rock tropes, just as we may approach Morricone’s inimitable style as critical theorists, as Fagen does when he asks the question below. Likely the most leading question in all of music journalism (with the exception of this Brian Eno interview):
But isn’t it true that the Leone films, with their elevation of mythic structures, their comic book visual style and extreme irony, are now perceived as signaling an aesthetic transmutation by a generation of artists and filmmakers? And isn’t it also true that your music for those films reflected and abetted Leone’s vision by drawing on the same eerie catalog of genres – Hollywood western, Japanese samurai, American pop, and Italian Opera? That your scores functioned both “inside” the film as a narrative voice and “outside” the film as the commentary of a winking jester? Put it all together and doesn’t it spell “postmodern,” in the sense that there has been a grotesque encroachment of the devices of art and, in fact, an establishment of a new narrative plane founded on the devices themselves? Isn’t that what’s attracting lower Manhattan?
Fagen quickly adapts, switches to rapid-fire questions to which Morricone gives a breezy one-word answer. “Bellissimo!” He’s a very busy man. He doesn’t live in the same world as those La Dolce Vita people, a “small group of people who got up at 11 P.M. and lived at night.” He wakes up at 5 in the morning. Morricone needn’t indulge us with stories or bore us with theoretical poses. His last words to Fagen, “I have always wanted to compose,” tell us what we need to know about him. Everything else is in the music.
Hear that music above in a five-hour playlist of some of Morricone best-known scores from his storied past—The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, and non-Leone western, The Mercenary.
And Morricone’s still speaking through his western scores, as he did just recently in the work of another chatty, obsessive, heavily referential admirer—Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, also in the playlist above. Bellissimo!
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