It is only appropriate that this tribute to Ennio Morricone features contributions that range from the good, to the bad, to the ugly.
Hitchcock had Bernard Herrmann. Fellini had Nino Rota. The world has Ennio Morricone.
To claim that Morricone is merely the greatest and most prolific composer of film scores seems a bit much, but it actually is an understatement. Unquestionably, his stature will only grow as time passes, for as long as people are watching movies, they will be hearing Morricone. It is unavoidable: between television and the big screen, his name rolls with the credits more than 400 times. Repeat, more than 400 times. Perhaps best known for his indelible association with Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns (chiefly the ones featuring a young actor named Clint Eastwood), Morricone has traversed the times and spaces to include unreal but epic American myth (Once Upon a Time in the West), early 20th century gangster drama (The Untouchables), the jungles of 18th century South America (The Mission), even the icy wasteland of Antarctica (The Thing) -- and that is just a random sampling of the ones everyone knows. Living legends don’t require accolades, but it’s nice, all the same, to see that he is being celebrated this year with an Honorary Academy Award.
We All Love Ennio Morricone is intended to accompany this occasion, and can be viewed as a gesture of gratitude and respect from the musicians who were obviously delighted to participate. It is, of course, also a succinct history lesson of Morricone’s influence and the indescribable shadow he casts, not only over movies, but music. That the assembled performers represent genres as disparate -- and ostensibly incompatible -- as rock, classical, jazz and opera reveals the extent of Morricone’s scope, and appeal. Of course, if you throw a party and invite everyone, there will inevitably be some misfits in the group. That said, a friendly warning to Morricone aficionados: anyone looking for irreverent, more twisted interpretations of many familiar favorites, this one is probably not for you. The good news is that a deeply felt yet joyously anarchic take on Morricone already exists, courtesy of John Zorn’s brilliant homage The Big Gundown.
Despite the myriad places, times and feelings he has translated into music, and in spite of his inhuman productivity, there is still an undeniable Morricone style. That such a sundry array of artists took part in this project is a testament to his influence; that the collected results still sound clearly identifiable is a testament to his genius. Finally, in addition to his inevitable figurative presence, Morricone’s fingerprints are all over the final mix, courtesy of his original orchestration, fitted between each piece to establish an uninterrupted flow. It is a subtle, yet typically astute touch from a man who has always understood that it’s the slightest gestures or moments that matter most.
And so, what does this tribute sound like? Well, like a not so great western, it gets ugly, early. Celine Dion (yes, that Celine Dion) kicks off the action, and does not disappoint. To be awful, that is. It’s almost like a preemptive antidote, a postmodern exercise in providing an anti-Morricone moment before getting down to the actual business at hand. To each their own, obviously, but this is the only justification that comes to mind while pondering Dion’s place in these proceedings. Thankfully, actual artists with souls (and talent) rescue the lugubrious opening salvo: Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock to the rescue! Their take on “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is of the kitchen sink variety, and with the collective talent of those two, it’s impressive and appropriate overkill: Mwandishi keyboards mixed with Quincy’s more-is-more arrangements, it’s the early '70s on a see-saw with tomorrow; in other words, pretty much what you’d expect. The dust is still thick in the air when Sheriff Springsteen blows into town to interpret “Once Upon a Time in the West”. With admirable restraint, The Boss keeps his yap shut and shows what Morricone means, using his guitar to tell the tale. As is often the case these days, understatement suits Springsteen. A rather pedestrian reading of “Conradiana” is turned in by Andrea Boceli, which makes the subsequent appearance of Metallica that much more intriguing. It would be telling enough that Metallica was interested in this experiment, but considering the group has opened its live shows for the past two decades with “The Ecstasy Of Gold”, Morricone’s palpable influence on music is further elucidated. Five songs in and we’ve already sampled jazz, opera, rock, heavy metal and Hollywood schlock. Pretty much covers the bases, doesn’t it?
It is nice to have Metallica’s mayhem ease into mellower Morricone, and this collection is likely to be the only place you’ll ever find metal melting into Yo-Yo Ma. The renowned cellist already has intimate ties to the maestro (2004’s “Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone”), and his rendition of “Malena” from that recording is graceful and authoritative. Unfortunately, the bathos is back with Renee Fleming’s mawkish theatrics on “Come Sail Away”. Simply put, when one is accustomed to having the instruments doing the talking, it seems at best superfluous to have such a breathless melodrama cluttering up the clarity. The perfect tonic for this is Morricone himself: “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission (a score that must be counted among his ultimate masterpieces) is about as good as it gets. The next several selections feature the Roma Sinfonietta Orchestra, with stellar contributions from Chris Botti’s trumpet and Dulce Pontes’ ethereal vocals. After some saccharine French pop from Vanessa And The O’s (“Je changerais d’avis”), another heavyweight takes his turn. Well, former heavyweight anyway. Roger Waters, post Pink Floyd, is definitely an acquired taste for the exceedingly patient, or ludicrously loyal. In revealingly megalomaniacal fashion, his work has become increasingly less interesting as the man has moved more to the forefront (Regarding those strained vocals, has anyone ever seen him and Mark Knopfler in the same recording studio?). Even what should have been encouraging accompaniment from Eddie Van Halen is tame and listless.
Thankfully, the collection ends strongly, with Morricone himself conducting/orchestrating the final four songs. “The Tropical Variation” alone is more than worth the price of admission, particularly if you are not inclined to cough up $53 for a used copy of the Nostromo soundtrack online. This piece, as much as any other, embodies everything that is great -- and inimitable -- about Morricone: that familiar tension of mirth always on the verge of bursting into violence. Kind of like movies, kind of like real life. “Addio Monti” is gorgeous enough to cause one to consider, for the umpteenth time: this is the guy who scored all those spaghetti westerns? Morricone is large, Morricone contains multitudes. Fittingly, the final notes are from “Cinema Paradiso”, a title that could aptly describe Morricone’s own song of himself. In conclusion, We All Love Ennio Morricone is a suitable introduction to a vast and breathtaking body of work. With any luck, this well-deserved encomium will inspire a flood of reissues and reasonably priced collections, enabling the uninitiated an opportunity to hear the world with his eyes.