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'Incredibly Versatile': Life And Legacy Of Ennio Morricone

Jul 6, 2020
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" premiered in 1967 in the U.S., the critics were not impressed. The New York Times called it, quote, "the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre." The film, starring Clint Eastwood, would of course go on to become a classic, and the music from the film by composer Ennio Morricone would become iconic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE SONG, "THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY THEME")

CHANG: Ennio Morricone would go on to score some 500 films in his career. He won an Oscar in 2016 for his work on "The Hateful Eight." Morricone died today at the age of 91, and joining me now to talk about Ennio Morricone and his legacy is Bilge Ebiri, a film writer at New York Magazine.

Welcome.

BILGE EBIRI: Good to be here.

CHANG: So for somebody who's maybe heard a lot of Ennio Morricone's work but didn't realize all these different film scores were by the same man, would you just describe for us what was his music? What does it sound like if you could put it into words?

EBIRI: The first thing to understand about Morricone was that he was incredibly versatile. I mean, the films that he scored range from Westerns to horror films...

(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE'S "THE THING THEME")

EBIRI: ...To comedies to big prestige pictures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE'S "LOVE THEME FOR NATA")

EBIRI: There are certain elements that you find over and over again in his music that I think speak to why he was so popular and so influential.

CHANG: Like what? What element?

EBIRI: One of the things Morricone did very often - and he does it in a lot of his most kind of immortal scores - is he often starts with these very simple tunes. In a film like "A Fistful Of Dollars," which is kind of one of the first films to really put him on the map, you know, it starts off with this, like, little whistling tune...

(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE SONG, "A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS THEME")

EBIRI: ...That, you know, even a child could relate to. And - but then, you know, it starts to complicate it with whip cracks and castanets and, you know, expressive, aggressive electric guitars. And so it just becomes incredibly rousing but at the same time, in its own way, quite disturbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE SONG, "A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS THEME")

CHANG: What do you think? What would movies sound like without someone like Ennio Morricone? I mean, if you could articulate what his influence has been, how would you describe it?

EBIRI: I mean, musically, you know, he was a pioneer in the way that he brought non-classical elements - pop elements, sound effects, whip cracks and things like that. But I think there's actually a broader influence here, which is I don't think movies would be the same without Ennio Morricone because if you think about it, you know, the first one, "A Fistful Of Dollars" - and Sergio Leone was obviously, you know, one of Morricone's great collaborators. But he also understood what he had with Morricone because he understood that you could cut to a close-up of a man just staring at another man and then cut back to the other man for two, three, four minutes, no words uttered, and just fill it with music.

CHANG: Yeah.

EBIRI: And the music did the work for you. So in that sense, Ennio Morricone changed not just music. He changed movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE SONG, "THE ECSTASY OF GOLD")

EDDA DELL'ORSO: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: Bilge Ebiri is a writer from New York Magazine. Thank you so much for joining us today and helping us remember this man.

EBIRI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE SONG, "THE ECSTASY OF GOLD")

DELL'ORSO: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.