Eminent Hollywood composer, 90, hits out at film-makers’ poor understanding of music
By Dalya Alberge
February 23, 2019
As one of cinema’s greatest composers, he has written the music for hundreds of films, including classics such as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, recreating the wild west of Sergio Leone’s imagination with a soundscape of haunting whistles and cracking whips.
But, after a lifetime’s career in both Hollywood and European cinema, Ennio Morricone is now settling scores of a different kind. In a book based on extensive interviews with the famously private man, he attacks film-makers who, he says, fail to understand the power of music to heighten emotions – and some fellow composers for enabling them to regard a soundtrack as merely “something that plays in the background”.
“There are times … when you get to the recording stage without having the slightest clue as to the director’s expectations,” he says in the book, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words. Now 90, he recalls the US filmmaker and Halloween director John Carpenter commissioning him to write the score for The Thing: “He hardly said a word.” Don Siegel wanted Morricone’s music for the 1970 western Two Mules for Sister Sara, starring Shirley MacLaine and Clint Eastwood, but “we didn’t communicate much,” he says.
The composer remembers that his fellow Italian Franco Zeffirelli asked for music “devoid of themes, a music of moods and atmospheres”, but “when the music was ready … said, ‘You didn’t write any themes.’”
Roland Joffé, the British-French director behind The Killing Fields, also comes in for sharp criticism from Morricone, who wrote the score for The Mission, which starred Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. “What makes it most difficult to compose a score are those directors who need to know and control every detail of their work, and therefore don’t let composers do their job,” he says. “In my career, I have met many of that kind … Joffé, one of the most peculiar under this profile. Relationships must be based on trust.”
The composer, who has adapted his musical style to almost every conceivable movie genre and since 1960 has scored more than 450 films, is kinder to Leone, who, he says, “intentionally left space for the music to be listened to” and adapted his camera movements to its sounds. But he is critical of composers who, he argues, have been complicit in dumbing down their art. “Film composers have themselves underestimated their own contribution and, in so doing, they have made directors and producers accustomed to very fast working times – not the least by resorting to myriads of clichés,” he says.
John Williams, the acclaimed writer of the Star Wars scores, is “an exceptionally gifted composer whom I greatly respect”, but even he is criticised for making “a commercial choice” about the space epic franchise. It was, he says, “understandable, but still commercial. I could not have scored Star Wars in that way”.
He adds: “What seems hazardous to me is to associate a march, no matter how well written, to outer space. Oftentimes, solutions of this sort stem not so much from the lack of creativity or skills, but from mere commercial concerns – as consequences of the rules imposed by the film industry … Speaking both as a composer and a filmgoer, I believe that a rather simplistic standardisation of stylistic choices has made film music less interesting over the years, in terms of both conceptual depth and compositional methods.”
Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, edited by the composer Alessandro De Rosa, is published by Oxford University Press next month.