How Sergio Leone Made Music an Actor in His Spaghetti Westerns, Creating a Perfect Harmony of Sound & Image

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Quentin Taran­ti­no Lists His 20 Favorite Spaghet­ti West­erns

The Music in Quentin Tarantino’s Films: Hear a 5‑Hour, 100-Song Playlist

Hear 5 Hours of Ennio Morricone’s Scores for Clas­sic West­ern Films: From Ser­gio Leone’s Spaghet­ti West­erns to Tarantino’s The Hate­ful Eight

Ukulele Orches­tra Per­forms Ennio Morricone’s Icon­ic West­ern Theme Song, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” And It’s Pret­ty Bril­liant

Watch the Open­ing of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the Orig­i­nal, Unused Score

Why Mar­vel and Oth­er Hol­ly­wood Films Have Such Bland Music: Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Per­ils of the “Temp Score”

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.

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