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.
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. The issue for him on that front is that with only one single sound he defined the sonic atmosphere of a genre, thus any typecasting that followed is akin to the inventor of the wheel complaining that nobody compliments him on his pasta sauce. The fact of the matter is that his scores for dramas like Cinema Paradiso might also be magnificent but there’s plenty more of those, but all you have to do is utter “wah” with a certain cadence and anything with a pulse in earshot will follow, at the very least internally, with a “wah-wah”.
Morricone once said, “I come from a background of experimental music which mingled real sounds together with musical sounds.” With The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, this experimentation came to the fore in an anarchic masterpiece that is so universal and gloriously glaring that its inherent madness is often masked. For starters, it begins with a coyote howl, which Morricone deployed by design to brand the viewer’s sensibility with “the main theme of the movie” in a “psychological way”.
Following that, the very singular opening to a score builds through the driving sound of a horse’s hooves, whips cracks, a fuzzing frenzy of Fender Stratocasters, an incomprehensible choir incantation and then the sudden soaring glory of brass. With that cacophony, the entirety of spaghetti western iconography was etched into a weird and wonderful sonic tapestry. The scene was set and the only thing left was to follow the track of the narrative and catch it at its destined diegesis to provide an exultant culmination, not matched by the score but subtly underpinned by it from the get-go.
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. Ask any carpenter and they’ll tell you that subtlety is overrated, and a nail sits most flush when it’s been brayed on the head. 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.
This grand ‘Ecstasy of the Gold’ showdown is a musical masterpiece that any musicologist would attest to, but what makes it stand out as the greatest in a cinematic sense is how deeply entwined it is with the movie that spawned it. That is, in short, the art of the score and this moment is a kitchen-sink shebang that captures the ringing sound of western’s slipping into their sonic glass slipper. It asks the audience to put down the popcorn crank the volume up till the rafters shake and just sit there in blood-pumping mouth-open awe. If you can arrive at this moment and still have the slightest concern for life outside of the cinema screen, that your worries are so large that you perhaps shouldn’t be watching a film.