Credit: Roberto Serra

From Sergio Leone to Quentin Tarantino: Ennio Morricone’s 10 greatest film scores

Considered an auteur in his own right, Ennio Morricone was an Italian composer, orchestrator, conductor and trumpeter whose unique style and experimental composition made him earn fame in Hollywood as well as the Italian film industry. Morricone “was impossible to categorise. His portfolio seemed to span every conceivable mainstream genre, including comedy, drama, romance, horror, political satire and historical epic.” 

His most memorable scores included the ones he composed for Sergio Leone’s legendary “Spaghetti Westerns”, associated most notably with Clint Eastwood’s earlier roles as antiheroes. The grand and incandescent music elevated Leone’s crude operas into a wonderful dream, where violence is triggered by the sound of church bells and ocarina.

The Italian composer’s fandom included acclaimed directors Quentin Tarantino, John Carpenter and more, all. of whom made sure to work with the composer at least once in their lifetime. His collaboration with Tarantino won him his first-ever Academy Award which was long overdue. The soundtracks Morricone produced have changed the course of cinematic history and redefined the art of scoring a film. He inspired musicians from across all genres, including Hans Zimmer, Danger Mouse, Metallica, Radiohead, Dire Straits etc.

The maestro died at the age of 91 in Rome. On what would have been his 92nd birthday, today, we have compiled a list of the best film scores he produced to pay tribute to the legend whose legacy continues to inspire composers and filmmakers alike.

Here are ten best film scores composed by Ennio Morricone. 

10 best scores of Ennio Morricone

10. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

The film is an epic story of survival where a group of researchers encounter the eponymous ‘Thing in Antarctica’ it is a parasitic, alien life-form that has the power to assimilate and imitate other life-forms. As soon as they realise that anyone in the group could be the Thing, the researchers are overcome by guilt, fear, paranoia and mistrust.

Considered auteurs in their fields, Carpenter and Morricone both had unique visions for the music score. Morricone had been approached by Carpenter to take the job as the latter wanted this film to have a European musical approach. According to Carpenter, “All I said to him was, ‘Fewer notes’….. If you see The Thing, the ultimate theme is the result of our conversation: really simple, synth-driven, effective.”

Morricone’s effective and ominously creepy twenty-minute orchestral music was composed and later used by Carpenter throughout his film. It was augmented by the director’s own compositions on the synthesiser; the soundtrack became archetypal in the horror genre. After producing nearly an hour long-unused soundtrack, Morricone said, “In the end, he chose just one single piece of music….Now one of the pieces he didn’t use is in The Hateful Eight.”

9. Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)

Ennio Morricone was supposed to work on an upcoming project when his old friend Franco Cristaldi requested him to join the film he was producing. By the time Morricone finished reading the script of the film which was often been seen as an example of “nostalgic postmodernism”, he did not hesitate to drop out of his previous commitment and came aboard to work on Cinema Paradiso. The film is a celebration of cinema, where the young protagonist, Salvatore, is passionate about films which paved the way for a new chapter in his adulthood. 

While his composition for this film is supposedly one of his most romantic works, it more keenly conjures a sense of wistfulness, nostalgia and innocence. The lyrical opening for the film goes down as some of the most recognisable soundtracks in the history of cinema, where the nine simple notes draw in the bittersweetness of a coming-of-age story. The symphonies are reminiscent of old Hollywood films; Ennio had composed one of the love themes with Andreas, his son, which replicated the film’s central theme of mentorship and tutelage to bridge the gap between generations through the magic of art. 

8. The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987)

Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables revolves around Al Capone, the notorious crime boss and bootleg alcohol magnate. Determined to bring Capone down, Prohibition agent Eliot Ness forms an elite group of law enforcers including cop Jimmy Malone; the group is called the Untouchables. This crime drama is more entertaining due to the Morriconian score which adds an authentic ‘20s Chicago vibe to the film.

“I’m not so keen on composing triumphant music”, Morricone had admitted. He was said to have had some issues in delivering a suitable theme for De Palma’s thrilling gangster saga. The film’s opening gambit featured a harmonica which had been previously put to good use in The Dollars Trilogy, while the jarring rhythmic tone drew on early jazz. 

Although Morricone was not as playful and experimental in the ’80s as he was in the ’60s or ’70s, his composition added a new dimension to the film, stirring up and heightening the various scenes it graced. 

7. The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986)

Roland Joffe’s historical drama revolves around a Jesuit priest and a reformed mercenary whose 18th-century mission to Argentina and Paraguay aims to defend indigenous communities from colonial oppressors. This earned a second nomination for Morricone who defined it as a duet between ‘Spanish’ and ‘Guarani’ themes. It also won the first rank in Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Classic 100 Music in the Movies. 

The film opens with a liturgical piece ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’ which became one of the highlights of his concerts in the later years. Morricone expertly blends cultural styles with instrumentation by weaving in sudden percussive drumming into a ceremonial choir. With the music being semi-earthly semi-transcendental, Morricone later referred to this work as a genuine miracle as this helped him “relaunch into cinema”. 

6. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)

Sergio Leone’s magnum opus was a gangster film about gangsters and organised crime in New York City. When Leone finally directed the film, he died shortly after, making this his final contribution to cinema. Adapted from a novel, The Hoods, the film revolves around the lives of David (known as Noodles) and Maxmillian (known as Max), who lead a group of gangsters in a Jewish ghetto to prominence. Ennio Morricone said, “I consider it Sergio’s masterpiece.” 

The film explores themes of childhood, friendship, trust, loyalty, betrayal, greed, loss and the gangster life. To enhance the effect the Morriconian soundtracks had been employed, which brought out the themes of the bygone times and the past slowly disintegrating into fragments, fading away. Morricone had incorporated Gheorghe Zamfir’s music of the pan flute which was hauntingly beautiful—at times it heightened remembrance, at times, terror.

The period-centric music comprising jazz and funeral marches brought out the triumph before the terror as well. As Rolling Stones said, “it’s Morricone’s music that holds Leone’s original vision of telling the story out of sequence together, weaving in and out of the characters’ memories. An elegiac soundtrack, for the most elegiac of movies”. 

5. II Gatto A Nove Code (Dario Argento, 1971)

Dario Argento’s II Gatto A Nove Code released in the U.S. as Cat O’Nine Tails is the second film in the Animal Trilogy, along with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. The title of the film is quite misleading as the film does not revolve around a feline, it is a story of the numerous leads the protagonists follow to solve a murder.

Morricone composed the soundtrack for this film, the most famous of which is “Paranoia prime”, a soundtrack reused by Quentin Tarantino in Death Proof (his segment of Grindhouse movie). The maestro had worked with a small group of musicians, comprising “percussion, upright bass, strings, eerie voices, piano, woodwinds, noise” etc. this helped in creating an “emotionally dense minimalist masterpiece”.

As a stand-alone audio experience, it is considered to be one of the best albums of 1971. 

4. A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964)

Sergio Leone and Morricone go a long way back, they even attended the same primary school. Since Italian horse operas were “in a state of crisis” for quite some time, Leone wanted to add a hint of mysticism and uniqueness to his adaptation of Yojimbo.

“Some of the music was written before the film, which is unusual. Leone’s films were made like that because he wanted the music to be an important part of it, and he often kept the scenes longer simply because he didn’t want the music to end. That’s why the films are so slow—because of the music.” 

Morricone used a gentle guitar strum along with whipcracks,  frenzied flute notes and tolling church bells in the opening theme which was unique to him. The chorus and the twangy guitars added a mystical bend to the soundtrack. It was a ground-breaking introduction to the Spaghetti Western genre and also marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship. 

3. For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965)

The second film in Leone’s The Dollars Trilogy had its score composed before the beginning of the production. A blend of diegetic and non-diegetic moments included vocals, guitars, timpani and whistling, along with Bach references and jaw harp. The score galloped faster than its predecessor and evoked the memories of childhood with the music box, while the darker and more melancholy score included a “tinkly player piano”. 

It was a perfect blend of mysticism and uniqueness. “The music that the watch makes transfers your thought to a different place…. the character itself comes out through the watch but in a different situation every time it appears”, said Morricone. “Leone and I were in tune …. Agreeing on all the nitty-gritty details prior to and not after shooting.”

Having been composed before the film was made it’s not hard to see how the score drove the imagery of the film forward too.

2. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

Quentin Tarantino has always been very vocal about his love for Ennio Morricone’s composition. He has found innovative ways to slip in Morricone scores into his films. He had initially approached the Italian maestro to commission original music for his film Inglourious Basterds, however, the composer refused to give “sonic scraps” instead preferring to wait until he could commit himself fully.

It was not until Tarantino visited Morricone in Rome, to read out the script of The Hateful Eight that the latter agreed to work on it. Morricone supposedly had an idea in his mind as soon as he read the script and it was supposed to give a “forward momentum” to the film. 

Controversies never cease to follow Tarantino and this time, it caught up with the reserved Morricone as well. He was misquoted by a magazine for having called Tarantino ‘a cretin’. Irrespective of these controversies, Morricone used his vast repertoire of ideas and creativity to compose the perfect Morriconian score, which received standing ovations at certain theatres.

It added gravitas to the film and connected it to the cinematic legacy of the Westerns. It also helped him win the long-overdue Academy Award. 

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

As the final film of The Dollars Trilogy, Leone and Morricone’s “synergy” worked out for the best where each of the three protagonists had a signature sound; “the good flute”, “the bad ocarina” and “the ugly vocals”, along with Western cavalry battle-charge horns.

The popular band Metallica started using one of the soundtracks, ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ as their opening music in concerts. It shows that the cultural impact of Morricone’s work can be seen and hear far beyond the cinematic world. It was scores like this one which put the Italian composer on top.

Morricone said that he “wanted to evoke the coyote’s voice in order to convey the idea of animal violence in the West”. He transposed “two hoarse male voices” and added the “wah-wah effect” which changed the course of history.  Listen to the soundtrack below to experience pure audio magic.

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