Ennio Morricone was so prolific that nobody can say for certain how many film scores he actually wrote, with the figure landing somewhere between 450 and 500. Now, prolific does not always go hand in hand with quality when it comes to the arts, but in Morricone’s case, his output was so sui generis, diverse and ultimately brilliant that his prolificacy indicates absolute mastery as opposed to a faeces-flinger hoping something would stick. In fact, he is quite possibly the greatest cinematic composer of all time.
Despite the fact that he scored around half a thousand films, he is nevertheless often pigeonholed, and this was a point of great chagrin for the late Italian maestro. “I get really annoyed because even though only 8% of my film scores were for westerns, most people only remember me for those films,” he told Channel 4 News.
Thus, below we have sought to delve into the depths of all of his outstanding output and emerge with his top 5 movie music moments ranked. It is far from an easy task, but dear lord does the quintet serve a celebration of his riotously brilliant work, nevertheless. (Alas, an honourable mention is also due for the dreamy surrealism of the sequence known as ‘Una Spiaggia a Mezzogiorno’, a narrow miss from the list).
Ennio Morricone’s five greatest movie music moments:
5. ‘Here’s to You’ (ft. Joan Baez) from Sacco E Vanzetti
The case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti is one that still has reverberations in America to this day. The trial of the lowly immigrants accused of murder was a pig-circus ran by anti-Italian leanings and an overwhelming lack of evidence besides the anti-establishment beliefs that the duo held.
This profound historical context imbues the story of the film with the weight of an old folk tale mired with the visceral edge of continually unfurling repercussions. With the score, and particularly ‘Here’s to You’, Morricone couples both of those elements perfectly. He even incorporated one of the biggest folk singers of the day to tick the latter box, but the grand organ overture adds enough heft to state that this is most certainly not a case lost to the sands of time.
What’s more, ‘Here’s to You’ also proved that he could’ve had another career on Tin Pan Alley writing more conventional pop tunes had he wished. The song is a stirring epic—the sort that adds a purpose to your stride if it crops up on shuffle when you’re out and about.
4. ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ from The Mission
‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ isn’t so much a crescendo as it is a hushed moment of reverie. Amid the drama of the Jesuit missionaries struggles in South America comes a break in the clouds that elucidates the true meaning of their battle, and it seems to also bring pause to the cinematic proceedings in the most transcendent way.
It is a mark of Morricone’s ability that you may not have even seen The Mission, but this lyrical refrain will no doubt sound familiar. It is a movement that has been arranged for myriad instruments and genres since it first graced our screens, but it has never been bettered.
The fact that the oboe in question forms a central part of the narrative only transfigures the beauty that Morricone was able to coax from it to the next level. The score itself runs its own narrative of conflict and resolution that imbues the action with literary depth.
3. ‘The Kissing Montage’ from Cinema Paradiso
When discussing the movie moments that make him cry, even film funnyman Will Ferrell said he has to chop onions by the time that the grand projection finale to Cinema Paradiso comes along. In truth, the sequence is a humble one, it is not aggrandised by too much melodrama or perverse tragedy, but Morricone’s music makes the point that small sincere moments are the ones we often live by.
Leonard Cohen once said that “music is the emotional life of most people,” the stirring scores of Morricone certainly galvanise that notion. As Tom Hanks also once said: “I realised that cinema was nothing more than a collection of colour and sound and the end result is an emotional wallop that you might not be able to understand.” This heart-tugging combination is one that Morricone has harnessed throughout his career.
In truth, the score for Cinema Paradiso isn’t quite as viscerally emotional without the accompanying picture, and that is actually a huge credit to the composer. This isn’t simply Coldplay he’s slapping over the top, but the sonic encapsulation of an entire narrative.
2. ‘Noodles, I slipped’ from Once Upon a Time in America
As Tarantino once said himself, “The one artist that I think has been the most influential to me in my work has got to be Sergio Leone.” Adding that he sees a stylistic kinship in many things that he does, “That kind of half-assed operatic quality, the way the music takes over, and his way of directing via set-pieces a lot of the time. I think he is the filmmaker who you can spot the most in my work.”
Central to that style was moments of pure dramatised poignancy coaxed up by the scores that the scenes soared upon. However, these moments were never just there for quick emotional cash-ins. In Once Upon a Time in America, the action unspools over a whopping four hours. With a running time that long, it is possible for moments of diegesis to be muted into one linear narrative track, however, Morricone ensures that the audience knows which moments are the most pivotal, and there is something truly timeless about this underpinning sequence.
The panpipe refrain is also echoed throughout the rest of the film as a touchstone to this tragic moment and the haunting impact it had on the characters. Sometimes subtly in art is overrated, and a punch on the nose works better than a soft swing and a miss — Morricone avowed that perfectly in his career. This is an operatic moment that proves to be majestic.
1. ‘Ecstasy of the Gold’ from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Soundtracks are unified bodies, pieces of work that run the course of a showing and even into the credits, but the fact of that matter is, that just like the movies that they play over, they ultimately come down to single moments. It is in these moments that the essential and energised worth of the art form is revealed.
The most perfectly realised moment in soundtrack history comes in the blistering finale to the near-four-hour epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It is the culmination of the story of an entire genre, and it all comes down to this – Ennio Morricone’s centrepiece as the three protagonists face off over a pot of gold. The pièce de résistance of spaghetti westerns is not some magical piece of cinematography or some ‘everybody-would-want-to-be-him’ performance by Clint Eastwood, although they are there in abundance, none can compete with the incomparable overtones of Ennio.
There is not one single hint of taking the safe track and aiming at some sort of downplaying, this is, after all, a snatch at glory for everyone involved. In this moment, Morricone gives it everything from searing Stratocasters to wailing women as he entreaties the heavens to look upon a moment of biblical diegesis. He couldn’t have possibly gone grander, but it never seems gaudy as there is no such thing as pretentiousness when it is paired with self-aware sincerity, and nobody knows this better than the Italian’s who live and breathe on the sort of passion that pours out Morricone’s death or glory moment for his score. It is an apex that asks the audience to put down the popcorn crank the volume up till the rafters shake and just sit there in blood-pumping awe. If you can arrive at this moment and still have the slightest concern for life outside of the cinema screen, then your worries are surely so large that you shouldn’t be watching a film in the first place.