Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema continued to look back through Ennio Morricone’s catalog of film scores. Last week’s program considered many of the late composer’s most prestigious works and his collaborations with important filmmakers. But Morricone created music for literally hundreds of films in the course of his career including many that were box office bombs or low budget affairs and niche genre titles. Here is the commentary from today’s program which highlighted some of Morricone’s music for obscure or underappreciated films as well as scores that were much better than the movies they were created for.
In addition to composing instrumental music, Ennio Morricone also created songs for the movies. Early in his career, Morricone had worked as a studio arranger and composed songs for Italian pop acts and he brought those skills to the silver screen. 1965’s A Gun for Ringo was a spaghetti western about a virtuous gunfighter. The movie was a success and it inspired a series of sequels including The Return of Ringo which was also scored by Morricone.
Ennio Morricone’s music has been frequently sampled or repurposed. His music to The Mission was featured in coffee commercials, the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has been frequently imitated and parodied, and Quentin Tarantino used musical cues from many of Morricone’s scores. Among Morricone’s most frequently referenced work is the score to Navajo Joe. The 1966 western was a standard tale of revenge and featured Burt Reynolds in one of his first starring roles. But it’s Ennio Morricone’s score to Navajo Joe that really made an impact. Quentin Tarantino repurposed some of the Navajo Joe score for Kill Bill and the main title is often used ironically as it was in the 1999 comedy Election.
The Exorcist was one of the most successful films of the 1970s and it inspired both sequels and imitators. Warner Bros. enlisted director John Boorman to helm Exorcist II: The Heretic. Boorman’s movie was an ambitious crack at the problem of evil and the repercussions of trauma. Unfortunately, the filmmakers never realized their ambitions on screen and Exorcist II was a financial and artistic disaster. However, Ennio Morricone’s music was well regarded, especially the pieces underscoring the innocence and virtue of possession survivor Regan, played by Linda Blair.
After the success of Hollywood movies like The Exorcist and The Omen, many low budget filmmakers cashed in on the satanic thriller fad. Ennio Morricone provided music for several of them including 1977’s The Chosen (aka Holocaust 2000) and 1974’s The Antichrist. The Chosen was about the diabolical son of the manager of a nuclear power plant while The Antichrist is about a woman who recalls her past life as a witch while under hypnosis. The premise of The Antichrist is quite similar to that of Exorcist II but Morricone didn’t repeat himself. Each score is remarkable in its own right and uniquely suited the specifics of each film.
Ennio Morricone created music for hundreds of films and his music frequently elevated the material. A good example of that is Morricone’s work on the 1977 movie Orca. Made to capitalize on the success of Jaws, Orca was about a killer whale that mounts a campaign of revenge on the fisherman who killed its mate. The movie is among the better man-versus-nature titles to follow Jaws because it found a new angle on the formula. Orca was about guilt and revenge and Morricone’s mournful score drew out the subtext and made Orca much more emotionally impactful than a lot of Jaws imitators.
After the success of Jaws, movie adaptations of other books by novelist Peter Benchley were fast tracked into production. Among these was 1980’s The Island. Michael Caine stars as a journalist who discovers a clan of pirates who have been living in isolation for centuries, raiding boats to sustain themselves and abducting children to refresh their ranks. The movie is bonkers and Ennio Morricone provided an interesting score.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1980s but his early career was tenuous and great films like The Terminator and Predator were offset a few terrible movies, among them 1985’s Red Sonja. The movie was a fantasy adventure in which Schwarzenegger was technically a supporting character—the title character was a female warrior played by Brigitte Nielsen—but the producers shot and promoted Red Sonja to capitalize on Schwarzenegger’s burgeoning stardom. The movie was a dud but Ennio Morricone’s music captured the fun and adventure that Red Sonja failed to realize.
In the 1960s and 70s, the giallo film became a prominent part of Italian cinema. These movies combined elements of slasher films, detective fiction, and psychological thrillers and Ennio Morricone composed music for several of these pictures. Among them was 1972’s What Have You Done to Solange? Giallo movies were often regarded as sleazy exploitation and some of them were but Morricone’s music added some class to the production.
1970’s The Forbidden Pictures of a High Society Lady was another giallo film scored by Ennio Morricone. This movie was a little different from of the other titles in the giallo subgenre. It leaned away from some of the slasher film elements and was more of an erotic mystery.
Ennio Morricone was best known for his westerns and probably second best known for his thriller and horror scores. But Morricone also scored political films as well as a lot of romances. Those interests dovetailed in 1970’s Metello which was an Italian drama about a man torn between domesticity and political activism. Ennio Morricone’s score for Metello emphasized the romantic qualities of both love affairs and political idealism.
1994’s Love Affair was a remake of the 1939 film which had also been remade in 1957 as An Affair to Remember. The 1994 version, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, was not well regarded. Ennio Morricone provided the music including a track titled especially for the film’s stars who are a married couple in real life.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita was a satire about the devil visiting the atheistic Soviet Union. A highly prestigious novel, The Master and Margarita has been adapted to the screen several times. Ennio Morricone scored the 1972 version.
In the 1990s filmmaker Adrian Lyne mounted an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. The book had already been adapted by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 but that film was made in the last days of the Production Code and so it downplayed the sexuality as well as the tragic elements of the story and emphasized the black comedy. Lyne’s version was the opposite. Ennio Morricone wrote the music for 1997’s Lolita and the score matched Lyne’s approach –emphasizing the tragedy of the story. It was a good movie and a worthwhile adaption of Nabokov’s novel but 1997’s Lolita ran afoul of renewed concerns about the exploitation of children. Distributors refused to get involved with Lolita and the movie went mostly unseen at the time. Like the movie it was written for, Morricone’s score for Lolita has been underappreciated.
La Cage Aux Folles
Ennio Morricone’s career was largely defined by his music for serious movies like westerns, thrillers, and melodramas. But Morricone did score a few comedies, among them 1978’s La Cage Aux Folles. An adaptation of the stage play, La Cage Aux Folles was a French and Italian production about a gay couple whose son brings his girlfriend and her conservative parents to visit. The movie was a huge success and it was later remade with American actors including Robin Williams and Nathan Lane under the title The Birdcage. Morricone’s score to La Cage Aux Folles is light and lively, suiting the likable characters and the comedy of errors.