Nearly everyone who’s heard music has also received intense feelings from music. “We know that music activates parts of the brain that regulate emotion, that it can help us concentrate, trigger memories, make us want to dance,” says Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in his latest video essay. “Music fits so well with the patterns of thought, it’s almost as if that lyrical quality is latent in life, or reality, or both. In film, no one understood this better than Sergio Leone, the Italian director of operatic spaghetti Westerns.” And though you may not have seen any spaghetti Westerns yourself — even Leone’s Clint Eastwood-starring trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — you’ve surely heard their music.
The fame of the spaghetti Western score owes mostly to composer Ennio Morricone, whose collaboration with Leone “is arguably the most successful in all of cinema,” thanks to “the deep respect Leone had for Morricone’s work, but also his general feeling for how music should function in film.” Unlike most filmmakers, who then, as now, commissioned a picture’s score only after they completed the shooting, and sometimes even the editing, Leone would get Morricone’s music first, “then design shots around those compositions.
The music, for Leone, really was a kind of script.” Using scenes from Once Upon a Time in the West, Puschak shows that music was also an actor, in the sense that Leone brought it to the set so his human actors could react to it during the shoot. Often the music we hear in the background is also what the actors were hearing in the background, and what Leone used to orchestrate their actions and expressions.
Puschak calls the result “a perfect harmony of sound and image,” whether the visual element may be a soaring crane shot or the kind of extended close-up he favored of a human face. Among living filmmakers, the spaghetti Western-loving Quentin Tarantino has most clearly followed in Leone’s footsteps, to the point that he incorporated Morricone’s music in several films before commissioning an original score from the composer for his own western The Hateful Eight. He goes in no more than Leone did for the “temp score,” the standard Hollywood practice of filling the soundtrack of a movie in production with existing music and then asking a composer to write replacement music that sounds like it — a major cause of all the bland film scores we hear today. To go back to Once Upon a Time in the West, or any other of Leone’s Westerns, is to understand once again what role music in film can really play.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.