Book: Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (2004)

November 15, 2010 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Publisher: Scarecrow Press / ISBN: 0-8108-5132-6/ Format: Trade Paperback / Date: 2004

Author:  Charles Leinberger

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Review:

While taking a research seminar on the films of Clint Eastwood, Arizona University graduate Charles Leinberger got hooked on Ennio Morricone’s western scores for Sergio Leone’s westerns, and the music major never quite lost his fascination with the composer’s ability to be so inventive in a film genre that, by 1964,  had become awfully conventional within the Hollywood studio system.

Leinberger begins his score examination with a series of concise, well-defined introductions to the qualities that made the Italian spaghetti westerns so attractive to European and subsequent American audiences. Buffered by good bio sketches of director Leone and star Eastwood, the author thoughtfully examines Morricone’s early career steps, which led him to the forefront of Italy’s film scoring scene by the late Sixties.

Relying frequently on  Italian interviews and essays unknown to most English readers, the author traces Morricone’s prior popular music career as a top arranger and producer, and he proves how key American musicians – particularly blues guitarist Duane Eddy – and specific popular songs collectively defined the scores for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

There’s also insightful sketches on Morricone’s concert career and classical training – two backgrounds that complete the odd mix of colliding disciplines in the aforementioned scores – and the composer’s lengthy association with director Leone, which spanned a musically rich twenty year period until Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

What’s special about this particular entry in Scarecrow Press’ Film Score Series is Leinberger’s accessible dissections of the score proper; even if you know zero about music theory, Leinberger explains the composer’s thematic construction and variation in terms and language that’s tangible, so even fans merely keen on Morricone’s spaghetti scores and little else can respect and admire the construction of the film’s best-known cues. The author solidly balances elemental explanations of each cue’s function according to its placement, and its relation to the “Main Titles.”

According to Leinberger, Morricone defied the more traditional leitmotif formula by aggressively placing all major themes out front from the beginning. The combination of orchestra, unconventional vocal effects, and contrasting instruments – namely the soprano recorder, two males voices, and the bass ocarina – already upped the excitement factor (heavily boosted by propulsive rhythms), and through unique arrangements throughout the film, the main theme functions as travelling music, or as a reflective conduit for specific characters (respectively the Good/aka Blondie, the Ugly/Tuco, and the Bad/Angel Eyes).

Counterbalanced with his examinations are vintage reviews of the film (those horrified by the violence or bored by Leone’s pacing are very funny), plus a few vintage score reviews that quickly dismiss Morricone’s music. There’s also a good chronology of the film’s three-pronged strategic American release by United Artists in 1967, and Hugo Montenegro’s hit single that set the stage for the soundtrack album’s ongoing popularity the following year.

Though Leinberger acknowledges the ephemeral yet pivotal nature of Montenegro’s cover version, there’s little elaboration on the theme’s successful conversion to a pop hit, though it’s inferred through his structural breakdown of the Good‘s  “Main Titles” that Morricone’s popular music elements made the transformation very easy. Slowed down to a bopping rhythm, Montenegro’s arrangement alters the central, militaristic trumpet fanfare to a more sedate riff, but the vocal passages are surprisingly faithful to Morricone’s original version.

Leinberger also compares the original soundtrack album with the expanded Italian CD release, alongside cues used in whole or part within the film, and the first English language DVD release that featured a gallery of cut scenes from the longer Italian version and additional music. Comparisons between prior and subsequent scores for Leone films also place the Good in a more precise context within Morricone’s prolific Sixties output.

[A timeline in worth noting here: the book’s completion appears to precede the 2004 theatrical and DVD re-release of the longer Italian version, with new English dubbing by Wallach and Eastwood over scenes not present in prior English language versions. Leinberger counters claims made by historians in the commentaries for the new DVD, in which Morricone composed “The Ecstasy of Gold” before Leone filmed the scene. Through direct correspondences with the composer and co-star Eli Wallach, Leinberger realigns the record in proving only one cue, the vocal track “The Story of a Soldier,” was written before filming. “The Ecstasy of Gold” was written after Leone had completed editing the film proper, and Wallach concurs the scene was shot without music.]

Running 113 pages (plus 24 pages of index, appendix, and footnotes), Leinberger’s book is a breezy yet highly informative overview of the film, the filmmakers, and the composer, and avoids the dryness of an overly technical score thesis. Accompanied by printed score extracts, the author also explains the functionality of specific cues in key scenes, and both film fans and film music devotees will find Leinberger’s book a valuable resource for a pivotal work by one of Italy’s most respected and popular composers.

Other volumes in the Scarecrow Film Score Series include Vol. 1: Gabriel Yared’s The English Patient, Vol. 2: Danny Elfman’s Batman, Vol. 3: Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Vol. 4: Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet, Vol. 5: Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Vol. 6: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, Vol. 7: Mychael Danna’s The Ice Storm, and Vol. 8: Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

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© 2004 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

Book Reviews:  Vol. 2: Danny Elfman’s Batman —  Vol. 4Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden PlanetVol. 5Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

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