In the 1995 David Thompson-directed BBC documentary Ennio Morricone, the Italian composer’s biographer Christopher Frayling recounts how Sergio Leone, while researching for the music for the first of the Dollars Trilogy films, played two Morricone Westerns: Duel in Texas (Gunfight in the Red Sands, 1963), and Guns Don’t Argue (1964), and hated them. But the moment he played Morricone and Peter Tevis’s recording of Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty, Leone knew he had struck gold. The instrumental version became the theme for A Fistful of Dollars (1964). For Morricone, the theme was the soul of a film. So, it helped to have him on the set, Leone says in the documentary, since actors like Robert De Niro (Once Upon A Time in America, 1984) “for whom live sound is very important” wanted to “have the music played on the set…to get into the mood” and “record the dialogues later”.
“I never get tired of music: it is a passion that does not burn out,” the ancestor of modern film music Morricone, who was conducting concerts till as late as last year, had said in one of his many interviews. It harks back to what German composer Hans Zimmer had written about the maestro in 2011 in the British classical music magazine Gramophone, “I think as long as Ennio is alive and well, film music is alive and well.” On Monday, at 91, the music died.
From poetic odes on the London Tube to musical elegies – tributes poured in on Twitter. While cellist Yo-Yo Ma played the indelible haunting melody of the Love Theme, which makes the ending of Giuseppe Tornatore’s classic Cinema Paradiso (1988) one of the greatest in the history of cinema, Metallica doffed its hat at The Ecstasy of Gold (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, 1966), which has remained the heavy-metal band’s concert opener since almost its beginning.
Six decades of scoring for over 500 films, Ennio Morricone remained inventive, orchestrating extended cantatas (collaborating with the best classical musicians Rome had to offer) to anthems (El Mundial, the 1978 FIFA World Cup theme) and religious music, including a mass for the first Jesuit pope, Francis.
The atmospheric harmonica and chords melody, the coyote howl eked out of ocarina, whistle notes from pan flutes, the galloping beats and subdued war cry make for a classic Morricone Western. If his music – sublime, coaxing the beautiful and the violent, the simple and the epic, the operatic highs and lows – wrenches every bit of emotion till the listener implodes, it is the visual elements of his pieces that act as a stimuli, invoking and reigniting the respective scene, sequence and film in our memory.
The avant-garde Morricone, Hans Zimmer notes in Gramophone, brought “the electric guitar to the Western, the late ’60s zeitgeist into the 19th century”. “The best film music is the music you can hear,” Morricone says in the documentary, “Music you can’t hear, no matter how good, is bad film music. The director needs to give it proper space and volume.” And that is what the Kurosawa to his Masaru Sato, the Hitchcock to his Hermann – Leone did. The two, along with actor Clint Eastwood made up the inimitable Spaghetti Western Trio.
But Ennio Morricone was more than the Westerns, he touched giallo thrillers to neo-noirs, neorealism to commedia all’italiana, among others, and worked with directors equally diverse. And yet, it took another Western (American) and Quentin Tarantino – who had used Morricone’s music in Kill Bill (2003-04), Death Proof (2007), Inglourious Basterds (2009), and an original track for Django Unchained (2012) – to get the six-time BAFTA winner and three-time Grammy awardee his first Oscar with The Hateful Eight (2016).
Zimmer, who observed the Bach and Mozart influences in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), paid a hat-tip to Man with a Harmonica in a cue in his Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) soundtrack. The maestro’s music has spawned generations of film music directors looking up to him in their compositions, or plain copying and parodying the originals. While Spaghetti Western spurred our homegrown Curry Western, much like the story plots, the music – a refrain, if not entire pieces – were direct lifts. No listicle to the doyen can hold a candle to the sun. But at the risk of doing the genius a great disservice, and without delving into the inspiration-versus-copy debate, which is beyond the scope of this article, here are seven Morricone set-pieces that “inspired” some known names in Bollywood and down south:
End credits or Regan’s theme in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
This is the most instantly recognisable Morricone track lifted in entirety to create the title track of the 2001 Urmila Matondkar-starrer Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya arranged by Sandeep Chowta. Chowta, operating under the instructions of Ram Gopal Varma, was remaking the Hindi version of the already existing Telugu O Jaabili composed by V. Satyanarayana for the JD Chakravarthy-starrer Deyyam (1996). Varma, the director-producer of the Telugu film and producer of the Hindi one, loved to shock.
The Story of a Soldier (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly)
RD Burman uses the refrain tune to compose a different song in the melancholic dance number Sapna mera toot gaya, which Aruna Irani’s Sherry swings to while remembering her dead love Vikram (Rakesh Roshan), while Rishi Kapoor sneaks into her room to search for a typewriter in the suspense thriller Khel Khel Mein (1975).
Sixty Seconds to What? (For A Few Dollars More, 1965)
If the haunting lullaby-like start of this piece, which accompanies one of the famous cinema endings – the final duel scene, seems to have, perhaps, inspired Zimmer to compose the Davy Jones theme in Pirates of the Caribbean, the pipe organ and mariachi-style trumpet cue in the middle inspired Burman to tune, at a faster tempo, Joshilaay woh shehzaade hain zameen ke (Joshilaay, 1989), as Anil Kapoor and Sunny Deol ride horses across barren mountainous terrains.
Man with a Harmonica (Once Upon a Time in the West)
The refrain is reproduced in the intro music before the Burman-composed song Haare na insaan (Kachche Heere, 1981) starts. And in the haunting background fade-out in Gabbar’s entry scene, right before his famous Kitne aadmi the dialogue, in Pancham-scored Sholay (1975), and recurs each time to announce the approaching villain, when he kills Thakur’s family or the ant on his forearm, a foreshadowing to killing and returning Ahmed’s body on a mule to the village as a warning.
Title theme of Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
This track rings many bells for even those unfamiliar with Spaghetti Westerns and Curry Western, but they recall the tune from heist, gunfight or chase sequences in Hindi films of the ’70s-’80s. It is there in the intro section before Mukesh starts singing the Laxmikant-Pyarelal-composed Taaron mein sajke (Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli, 1971). And in Anu Malik’s parody Tu woh tu hai (Beqabu, 1996) with Sanjay Kapoor, astride a horse, in red cowboy hat and shirt. By some accounts, Hugo Montenegro’s rendition of Morricone influenced the scoring for Khote Sikkay (1974), starring the Indian Eastwood copy Feroz Khan, the film and its music remains a precursor to Sholay. But if there’s one film, which in its entirety is an ode to this Morricone piece, it is the Vinod Khanna-Pran-starrer and Laxmikant-Pyarelal-scored Gaddaar (1973). It’s there when the credits roll in the opening and closing, when Khanna walks through snowfall and rides on mules, lending heft to the suspense.
Al Capone (The Untouchables, 1987)
The great AR Rahman, too, hasn’t remained untouched by Morricone. In the intro and background fade-outs in Ekam Eva Adhvitheyam, the theme of the Rajinikanth-starrer Tamil supernatural action film Baba (2002), Rahman replicates the De Niro-featuring Al Capone.
La Condanna (La Resa dei Conti)/The Verdict, Inglourious Basterds
In all fairness, this section belongs to Ludwig van Beethoven and his Für Elise. It inspired Morricone to weave the La Condanna (La Resa dei Conti/ The Big Gundown, 1966). Later, Tarantino used the same symphony in The Verdict (Inglourious Basterds) but mislabeled it as Dopo La Condanna, which is another track from the same 1966 album.
Cheaper parodies closer home includes Anu Malik’s composed and sung Pehla pehla pyaar layi hoon (Maalamaal, 1988), where Mandakini’s garish Cleopatra hops around to woo a comic Aditya Pancholi with two left feet. But Malik is never happy copying once. So, in 1995, came Jaane mujhe kya hua (Baazi), where Mamta Kulkarni swoons over an idiot box showing a pistol-wielding Aamir Khan. Bappi Lahiri’s Hanske guzaare zindagi hai wohi aadmi (Brahma, 1994) starred a stretched-out Govinda over a piano. M Jayachandran gave Für Elise a spin in the Malayalam Nee januvariyil viriyumo (Akale, 2004). In greater likelihood, Indians would have heard, and lifted from, Beethoven rather than Morricone. There’s debutant Rajesh Murugesan’s instrumental piece – the Malayalam Moshanam (Beethoven Resurrected)/Tamil Thiruttu Isai (Beethoven Resurrected) – in the Nivin Pauly-Nazriya-starrer Malayalam-Tamil bilingual Neram (2013) soundtrack. At least, it gave credit where it’s due and titles that translate to music theft. Brownie points for honesty.
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