The New, The Old, and The Ecstasy (The Significance of Ennio Morricone's 2016 Oscar Win)
We at Jam Street Media are saddened to learn of the legendary Ennio Morricone's passing at the age of 91. As our Head of Production, I think it is important for me to explain that while studying composition and sound in college, Ennio's work was a huge inspiration for me and, I'm sure, millions like me. This post is a truncated and reformated paper I had written back in the long-off year of 2016. It outlines a small part of Ennio's work and a bit of symbolic and poetic justice within the context of Ennio's winning of an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his work in Quintin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.
Even if you are not a musical historian, you likely already know the exact moment that solidified Ennio Morricone as a revolutionary in the field of composition and scoring, but allow me to paint the picture anyway.
In the story of the film The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), after weeks -nearly months- of risking life and limb across the deserts of the Southwestern-United States; two polar rivals joined by a single common goal find what they’ve searched so hard to find: a graveyard where there is rumored to be enough gold to live rich for the rest of their lives. “Blondie,” (The Good) a sly deadeye played by a young, dapper, non-political Clint Eastwood, has been forced to align himself with a notorious bandit named “Tuco” (The Ugly) due to hidden knowledge the two have been wise to keep from one another. Upon first stepping foot in the graveyard, the soul of the two characters really begins to shine. Tuco’s greed and barbarism possess him like a demon as he chaotically searches the graveyard for the gold; where, while tested momentarily, Blondie remains the more level-headed and logical of the duo.
The musical personification of human nature begins here and couldn’t be more clear as the two react in their own unique ways to the potential fulfillment of desire. An aspect that highlights this point is the complete lack of dialogue in this most monumental of scenes. The entirety of the emotional climax of the film is rendered in a single song, aptly named “The Ecstasy of Gold.”
As Tuco gazes up at the thousands of graves he now must search, the fluttering notes of the piano give an air of vastness. Undertones from violins play motifs from earlier in the film, subconsciously reminding the viewer just how far our two “heroes” have come to experience this moment. Moments after the song beings on an uplifting theme, it drops to a minor mode as Tuco begins to see the potential futility of this undertaking. After casting his map to the wind, Tuco knows he’s come too far to give up now, and the song begins its initial verse over again, now with the accompaniment of marching drums.
Each step of the way, Ennio directs the viewer’s emotions with grandiose swells that, at that time (1966), had not been done before; at least not through this specific process. Through careful collaboration with director Sergio Leone, Ennio was able to create the entirety of the movie’s soundtrack before filming began. Hence, if at times, it seems as though the actors are acting along with the music, it is because they are. The music was played for them while the cameras were rolling to ensure perfect timing and emotional conveyance. It is that level of intimacy with the music that defines this iconic scene and sets the whole film apart from its imitators.
The technical aspects of the song itself were also unrivaled at the time. Ennio masterfully mixes familiar sounds of the setting, such as gunshots, into the composition. The iconic “wah-wah” sound is said to have been based on a hyena’s laugh and to this day conjures up images of this scene for those who've had the pleasure of seeing it. It epitomizes the chaotic excitement of traveling so far for a goal only to grapple with the idea that it may have all been for nothing. The inner battle of having imagined self-worth turn from gold to dust within your hands.
The intro to the song is only a mere two notes repeatedly looped, yet it carries the weight of the massive plot on its metaphorical shoulders. How delightfully audacious! It subconsciously reminds the viewer of the unspoken animosity between the main characters and the dichotomy of their goals. It's as if the reserved composure of the music itself is the line separating Blondie from a Tuco-like fit of rage or slowly and surely losing control to primal excitement. The mixture of this musical closeness with the visuals and the inventiveness of the composition make for a piece that, I believe, was and is unmatched in the western genre; notorious for its grandiose scores and wandering themes here is refined to a point. This song so seamlessly transitions from intrigue, desperation, hopefulness, and triumph that, while listening, you are actively rooting for a man who, at this point in the plot, is very obviously the scum of the earth. Not only that, but the two-and-a-half-hour storyline feels justified right when all hope seemed lost. Anyone who has sat through a particularly long Western film knows this is, in no way, an easy feat.
Now, consider the fact that modern musicologists still cite this soundtrack while also asking yourself, “how many awards should this score have won?” The question must be phrased in hypotheticals because, incredibly, the soundtrack that Ennio Morricone is best known for, never won. It was nominated for a "Best Instrumental Theme" at the Grammys in 1969, but (somewhat ironically) lost to Midnight Cowboy. Now Midnight Cowboy is fantastic film, but if I asked you to hum the theme, could you? The deeper levels of my gripe, I suppose, are with the award-winning theme not standing up to the test of time with the same fortitude Ennio's composition has. Then again, how could they have known the cultural significance The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly score would have on filmmaking? Ennio did finally win a Golden Globe in 1987 for his work on The Mission (1986), but for some, it was too little too late and not for work within a genre Ennio helped define. The days of the classical Western had passed. It wasn’t until 2015 (at the time of this writing the most current work of Ennio’s 70-year composing career) that he would win a Golden Globe for Best Original Score in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (and later an Oscar in 2016); in a Western-style film.
Ennio was interviewed by the popular technology magazine “Wired” to get his thoughts on his win.
To summarize, in the early days of his career as a film composer, Ennio was forced to turn to everyday sources of sound due to budgets too small for full orchestras. While this is best exemplified by the classic ticking of the watch in My Name is Nobody (1973), or the haunting, iconic whistling in A Few Dollars More (1965). This use of ambient sounds, such as gunshots, also appears in “The Ecstasy of Gold.” From the article, “All kinds of sounds can be useful to convey emotion,” says Morricone. “Sometimes an unknown, unconventional instrument can add something different to the music." This should tell us that even from early in his career, Ennio was already practicing musical ideology. He was putting into practice a philosophy that emotions can be conjured from more than harmony and that in the deepest recesses of the human mind lies fears and joys associated with ancient tones like a hyena's cackle.
While this experimental foley-mentality is second nature to Ennio, when director Tarantino approached him for this soundtrack, Ennio was only able to compose 25 minutes and a theme in large part to his age and the energy needed for a modern project of this size. The remainder of the film's score was cut together from old and unused scores Ennio had written to create something new. Ennio, who is known for cautioning young composers about too quickly adopting new technology, also incorporated synthesizers into The Hateful Eight soundtrack for better or worse. The Hateful Eight film score is best realized as a proverbial Frankenstein's Monster of previous Morricone works.
Thus there is no seminal moment or track in The Hateful Eight soundtrack that one could point to as the reason for Ennio's winning like one could with the overture-like "Ecstacy of Gold." Instead, I believe the purpose here for his Golden Globe and Oscar victories has more to do with its historic, symbolic, and cultural significance than the tangible, recent work. I also think there is something powerfully poetic about winning an award for (then-unvictorious) work you composed long ago. While I would never attempt to, even remotely, criticize the work of a man who completely revolutionized and redefined an entire genre of music, I would be hard-pressed to imagine his “Hateful” score having the same cultural and professional impact of his “Good, Bad, Ugly” score and I think most would agree.
I think those in "The Academy" understood that he should've been recognized the first time around for his inventiveness and genius. In that sense, it is obvious why this soundtrack has finally won. It is literally a blending of that which this maestro has learned in his many years of composition. It is the culmination of decades of experimental and ground-breaking musical work. It won “Best Original Score” despite the fact that it was half-composed of previous work; albeit unpublished. I, personally, do not think it was Ennio’s best, but dammed if it wasn’t deserved. This was the perfect opportunity to retroactively validate the work of one of the greatest composers to ever walk the earth. One need only look the footage of the ceremony to see a man filled with ecstasy over the gold he’d searched years to find.