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From Monument Valley to the endless Montana plains and from the banks of the Mississippi to the peaks of the Rockies, the wide-screen open spaces of the movie Western confront us with the fact that there is no orchestra in sight. Mel Brooks sent up the disjunction between sound and image in Blazing Saddles by sending his dapper black sheriff off across the desert on horseback to the accompaniment of a ripping big band tune on the soundtrack, only to have the sheriff stumble across Count Basie and his boys on their bandstand amongst some nearby cactuses.
It’s not that we imagine an orchestra playing just out of frame in other genres; we’re under no illusion that a slashing string quartet is rehearsing in the next room of the Bates Motel when Janet Leigh gets knifed in her shower in Psycho. We have long ago repressed all qualms about non-diegetic music, accepting it as an operatic convention imported into the movies soon after their birth. But in the Western, the reaches of open country seem to defy music rather than welcome it. Cormac McCarthy blew the genre apart with his novel Blood Meridian; there is no music in that book nor does its mountains of scalps conjure a jaunty jangle of Happy Trails in the reader’s mind. There have been murmurs that James Franco would like to make the book into a film. If he does, you can be sure that a musical soundtrack will sap the unblinking horror of the original telling of the story.
Perhaps this disparity between image and sound explains why the 20th-century founding fathers of the Western soundtrack were from another continent, practically another planet. Ukrainian born Dimitri Tiomkin may have known the endless steppe of his native land, but his score for High Noon bathes the staunch morality of Gary Cooper’s sheriff in naïve psalmic purity: it’s music for the parlor not the plain. He treats the Western as if it were a picturesque etching hanging on damask-papered walls.
No other nation has shaped the soundtrack of the Old West more than has Italy, hardly a land of the unfenced range. Puccini’s Fanciulla del West, with its hop-along rhythms, furious gallops, and spreading harmonies, was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910—two years before Arizona, home to tumbleweeds and Tombstone shoot-outs, had gotten statehood. The Italians were creating the musical substance of the mythic West before the last “i” had been dotted on Manifest Destiny.
Puccini considered the Fanciulla his masterpiece, but no composer’s music has had more influence on how we hear the West on screen—or from the windshield of our RV as it peels off I-90 and into Wall Drug, South Dakota—than Ennio Morricone. His music for the classic 1960s spaghetti Westerns directed by his friend, Sergio Leone, combined epic grandeur and a visceral emotional quality without which the characters—be they good, bad or ugly—would have been overwhelmed by the sublime widescreen geography. The plaintive screech of the flute; the bluesy complaint of the harmonica; the trumpet soaring like a vulture above the dessert wastes: these sonorities gained power, even threatened profundity, when harnessed to the evocative melodies that, by virtue of their modal construction and stark simplicity, captured the fatefulness of Medieval myth. Morricone’s Western music was archetypal while being simultaneously raw and immediate, nowhere more so than in the viciously distorted electric guitars that convert Henry Fonda (cast brilliantly against type) into bad-guy Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Morricone is still at it. Like Sitting Bull in the Wild West Show living beyond his own time and into another era, the Italian master—now in his mid eighties—has been enlisted in a kindred form of reenactment, not of the actual subjugation of the West but of the movie Western itself. The entertainment is Django Unchained and the huckster heading it is Quentin Tarantino.
It’s not that Morricone has been resting on his well-earned laurels, from his honorary Oscar of 2007 to his Polar Music Prize of 2010. By the latest tally he’s composed more than five hundred film scores, and is still going. An avid conductor of his own well-loved work, Morricone made his North American debut in Mexico only five years ago, just shy of the centennial of his compatriot Puccini’s operatic Western in New York City.
A film buff masquerading as auteur, Tarantino has long been a student of the spaghetti Western and therefore a devotee of Morricone’s definitive contribution to the sub-genre. Tarantino poached various Morricone numbers for his previous two films Kill Bill and Inglorious Bastards, which themselves are Western-like in their man-or-woman-on-mission structure. Tarantino’s recently-released film, Django Unchained, is another episodic work that yearns to be an epic. Instead, it staggers and ultimately drops facedown in the mud, succumbing to an unceasing barrage of irony and winking references. Morricone’s main musical turn, given special acknowledgment in the campy retro opening credits, is a song entitled “Ancora qui” for which he wrote the music teaming up with pop star Elisa Toffoli—apparently the composer’s current favorite vocalist—who wrote the lyrics in Italian and duly sang them in the same language in a sort of preemptive undubbing of the spaghetti soundtrack into its phantom mother tongue.
For Django Unchained Morricone did a couple of other cues that make use of some of his trademark grooves. We recognize and relish this music, too: the lonely trumpet in rising Star Trek/Coplandesque fourths (the quickest way to suggest endless prairie—or, later, endless space—in music) over the shuffle of snares. A vocalizing chorus soon steps in behind, before a similarly wordless soprano joins in a melancholic dialogue. Later we get broken-chord guitar for the bad guy plantation-owner’s Southern belle sister; the purposefully crude plucking of a naïvely classical harmonic progression deftly conveys the false pretensions of the ante-bellum Southern elite. This is Morricone showing us he can still produce what is required of him. Tarantino is paying him, indeed expecting him to be Morricone, to recreate that classic sound. The master graciously obliges.
As a figure in the history of the spaghetti Western, Morricone is arguably as big as Clint Eastwood, and hearing his music accompanying the film, if only for a few minutes, is like getting the Man With No Name to do a cameo. Outside of Morricone’s compositions, the score is, like the visual imagery, a stylistic hodgepodge ranging from the sly to the crudely comic—from the jangling spurs of a Western ballad at the opening, to the anachronistic pop and rap, to the Carmina Burana knock-off timpani thunder and portentous chorus of a goofily botched Klan raid. Morricone’s music becomes just the most tasteful dish on the mashed-up musical smorgasbord that is the film’s soundtrack.
In the midst of this aural mayhem a place of honor is carved out for Morricone’s “Ancora Qui” heard in the film’s last act. Somewhere in the midst of the movie’s flabby 2 hours and 45 minutes’ running time, the bi-racial bounty-hunting team of Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx) and King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) has made its way to the Mississippi to rescue Django’s wife from slavery. Shockingly for the white overlords of the place, the haughty freed slave Django is offered a room in the Big House and a place at the mahogany dining table. Morricone’s song emerges from the twilight as the black staff carefully lays that table with none of the stars (DiCaprio, Foxx, Waltz) in sight; it is a rare moment of stillness and intimacy in a film otherwise dominated by exaggerated speechifying, cartoon violence, and know-it-all quotation.
A solitary guitar beckons us in, as the slaves set out the refinements of Southern hospitality. In pace, harmonic rhythm, and melodic contour, the song is reminiscent of Elmer Bernstein’s theme music for Hud, that great neo-Western of 1963 with Paul Newman. In Django Unchained, however, elegiac beauty sounds like it just stepped into the candlelit room from another movie—a real one. Elisa’s lonely voice, with its hollow, grainy texture, intones the short, heartfelt opening phrase, “Ancora qui” —“Still here.” This is intended to refer, I suppose, to Django and his wife having, against all odds, refused to let the brutality of slavery separate them.
But it could as well refer to the master musician Morricone. It is uplifting to hear the composer practice his craft, even in a sophomoric, if occasionally entertaining, film. But one can’t help feeling that it is wrong that Tarantino could cajole Morricone into gifting some of his grandeur to a film that doesn’t deserve it. What is wrenching to watch and listen to is not the predicament Tarantino has concocted for his characters, but the selfish way in which the director has convinced Morricone to compose his own valediction—“(I’m) still here.” The composer is made to shuffle into Tarantino’s self-serving history of film and turn in a cameo coda to a magisterial career. “Ancora qui” laments its enslavement in a mediocre movie that forsakes conviction for rampant cleverness.
Tarantino giggles at his good fortune as he hums along with the legend. Morricone has grown old. Tarantino has yet to grow up.