During the Hall H panel for Quentin Tarantino‘s new film The Hateful Eight panel at SDCC this year (you can read my blow-by-blow live blog here), Tarantino gave us a lot of information about his film, from its use of special lenses that were used on classics like Ben-Hur to shooting on 70mm to it getting a Roadshow release. But easily the most exciting thing for me and a lot of cinephiles was his announcement that the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone is doing an original score for the film, his first Western score in 40 years. That is huge!
Morricone has had an incredibly long career in music, starting by arranging pop songs for RCA records in the 1950s and then branching into film in the 1960s. He started out mainly doing light comedies or costume fair that didn’t require a whole lot of musical fortitude, but it led him to more and varied composer duties. Eventually he began writing scores and theme songs to the huge slew of westerns made in Italy. These were largely attempts to directly replicate American Westerns, with the white hats and black hats and very little moral ambiguity.
One of my favorites of these is for the 1963 movie Gunfight at Red Sands, which contains a title track called “A Gringo Like Me”, which features the immortal line “There’s only one kind of man that you can trust, that’s a dead man, or a gringo like me.” I think it’s proven many times that gringos were pretty untrustworthy to Native Americans and Mexican people back in the Wild West. That track was sung by American crooner Peter Tevis, whose voice really adds to the silliness, I think.
The following year, Morricone began his association with director Sergio Leone, a school chum of his, on a series of Westerns that truly changed the genre in Italy. Not content to simply be replica American Westerns, Leone brought a distinct Roman sensibility to the proceedings, added a lot more grit and bravado, and let big close ups and music build the tension. The first of these movies was 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars and with it the “Spaghetti Western” was reborn.
As you can hear with the above opening theme, just as Leone was reimagining the visual storytelling of the Western, Morricone was doing the same with the music. He used atypical orchestration and instrumentation to give the soundtrack the same pop-art flair that the movie itself had. He employed whistling, changing, a driving rhythm, and an electric guitar, which hadn’t been used much (if at all) in film scores yet. This became the first Rock & Roll Western, and it wouldn’t stop there.
The success of Morricone’s Fistful of Dollars score led to him working with Leone again on every one of his subsequent westerns (For a Few Dollars More in 1965, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in 1966, Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968, and Duck, You Sucker! in 1971, as well as My Name is Nobody, a comedy western Leone wrote, produced, and maybe-sorta-directed in 1973). It also led to Morricone being sought after by other Spaghetti Western directors, working on some of the best non-Leone entries, including Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders, The Great Silence, The Mercenary and Companeros, as well as a literal heap of other great movies. In total, Morricone did over 70 scores for westerns in his 60-plus-year career.
Above, I’ve compiled a playlist of some of Morricone’s best pieces of Western music. You’ve probably heard a lot of these before, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy all of them if you haven’t. I defy you to listen to this playlist and not feel like a huge badass. There’s also several you’ve heard, no doubt, in Tarantino movies. I’ve ended the playlist with a couple of tracks from the 1970 American western Two Mules for Sister Sara, which ushered Morricone into doing big Hollywood movies.
I can’t wait for The Hateful Eight and I’ll sure a shootin be buying the score, because when Morricone does Westerns, it’s nothing short of magical.