Sunday, 26 February 2017

Spaghetti and cowboys: part 3

Title: The hateful eight
Year: 2015
Composer: Ennio Morricone

February 28th, 2016 Maestro Morricone finally received an Academy Award for an original film score. In 2007 he was given an honorary award for his lifetime work and surely nobody would expect him of winning another one after that. However circumstances change and luckily they developed into one of the greatest stories in film music history.

The director Quentin Tarantino had previously never had an original film score in his films but he had used Morricone’s compositions throughout his career and expressed a deep admiration for the composer. For Djago unchained he actually asked Morricone to compose an original song, which he did. There had been talks already at the time whether Morricone could score the whole film but the idea was ditched. Luckily his next film was another western, a genre Morricone is most known for, though his latest score in the genre was with 1981’s Occhio alla penna. Miraculously Maestro accepted the job (supposedly by the pressure of his wife Maria) and the rest is history as they say. Already at the time of the announcement and recording of the score, throughout the marketing and at the time of the film’s screenings there was a fuss surrounding the score like no other. Fortunately also the Academy finally acknowledged Maestro’s contributions and gave him the award after all these years.

Maestro's Oscar speech

Morricone has said in the interviews that his desire is to create absolute music and his film music success was at the start of his career means to pay the bills so to say. This is the closest he has given freedom to create something similar to that in film music in many years. You see Tarantino pretty much allowed Maestro to create anything he liked and he certainly wasn’t going to please anybody by offering them a smooth and stereotypical pastiche. The result has almost no resemblance to his previous western scores which was the composer’s intention too. What we ended up with is an extremely brutal theme and variations -type of score with barely any pauses in the bleakness. The way Tarantino also utilized Maestro’s music is very in-your-face and ballsy which just deepens its impact. For instance the film opens with a single long shot with just the savage music creating the atmosphere. In the final film there were also a few cues used from Maestro’s score to 1982’s The thing which didn’t end up in that film. They fuse well with the more mysterious original material, both expressing the feeling of isolation and dread in a restrained fashion.

Before listening to the score or seeing the film I too had no idea of what to expect. Straight at the opening minutes of L’ultima diligenza di Red Rock I was sure that I was in for a thrill ride. The sound of ominous bassoons and a steady percussion track immediately reminded me of a stagecoach riding by. This bassoon melody is the film’s main theme and there’s something truly unsettling about it; like it’s a growling beast stalking its prey and preparing for an attack. This animalistic quality continues throughout the piece with the atmosphere intensifying with each added instrumental line. A nod to Maestro’s previous works in the genre is included too in a form of shouting “wah-wah” voices. Eventually Maestro brings out all the stops in an immense crescendo for the whole string section playing the main theme while the brass answers rhythmically in joint conversation. Ingeniously it’s not the end but there’s time for a silent, sinister coda that tells the listener that the worst is yet to come.

The score’s other theme is Neve which is introduced fully in its 12-minute form in track 8. Even though I adore what Morricone did with his main theme, I actually think this cue is even better than the opening. It is by no means flashy but a slowly developing mystery which ultimately shrouds everything like the falling snow. It begins with an intro melody that is oddly similar to Kylo Ren’s theme from John Williams’ Star Wars episode VII score. However from that on we hear a musicbox melody similar to one Maestro used in Per qualche dollaro in piĆ¹ which forms the basis to the rest of the cue. At first it seems not much is going on but with clever orchestrations like crystal clear solo trumpet which appears from time to time, quotes from the main theme and a sublime feeling of isolation utilized by low woodwinds, Maestro keeps me entertained till the very end. The closing chords are just wonderfully distant, fading into uncertainty.

Recording a special LP album at the Abbey Road studios

Almost everything derives from these two primary themes. Overture begins with a slow string version of the snow theme whose pace thickens along with the musicbox and the underlying faint hints to the main theme. Vice versa Narratore letterario builds around the main theme starting from pizzicato strings and the musicbox melody plays on top of that before moving to dramatic atonal strings. Those also earn their own difficult cue called Sei cavelli. The reprise of the main theme in track 7 starts with brutal percussion and reprises the original cue’s dramatic conclusion. The reprises of Neve take another route and are much more restrained than the long version, the first one just repeating the intro and the second playing the musicbox melody in a beaten down manner along with cooing main theme clarinet. Sangue e neve presents the dual personalities within one cue: it begins with the musicbox building momentum and out of nowhere appears a brutal string version of the main theme that vanishes as abruptly.

There are a few exceptions to the monothematic structure. Raggi di sole sulla montagna is probably the most 'classical' sounding cue with very abstract harmonies formed by the strings and wandering woodwinds which actually create a brief moment of serenity amid the otherwise dark times. The two L’inferno bianco tracks are very similar and the differences are almost nonexistent. They start with some Morriconean action writing with several rhythmic stabs over a layer formed by a martial drum and aforementioned wandering woodwinds. In the second part the rhythmic stabs continue by themselves and are joined by a more intimate bass and drum set and in the first version by a synth brass sound, and by a larger brass section in the latter. The writing is once again challenging but that also makes it rather unique. The last farewell La lettera di Lincoln is an elegy for a solo trumpet, organ and warm strings which is rather lovely though short-lived.

Some listeners might discard The hateful eight for being boring. It’s true that it relies heavily on repetition like many other Morricone scores. However the two long suites which Maestro bases all the music on are probably the two best single compositions he has written in 2010s and once again show his ability to reinvent himself after all these years. The album presentation is a mess, the dialogue sounded okay after seeing the film but now it leans more towards irritating. The songs are nothing special except the guitar ballad Jennifer Jason Leigh sings. Overall it really is a historic score which celebrates Maestro’s whole legacy in both absolute and film music during the time when film music is being overrun by mediocrity.

Rating: ****1/2

1. L'ultima diligenza di Red Rock - Versione integrale (07:33) *****
2. Overture (03:11) *****
3. "Major Warren meet Daisy Domergue" (00:33) *
4. Narratore letterario (02:02) *****
5. Apple blossom (The White Stripes) (02:15) ***
6. "Frontier justice" (01:51) *
7. L'Ultima diligenza di Red Rock - #2 (02:38) *****
8. Neve - Versione integrale (12:17) *****
9. "This here is Daisy Domergue" (01:02) *
10. Sei cavalli (01:22) ****
11. Raggi di sole sulla montagna (01:42) *****
12. "Son of the bloody ni**er killer of Baton Rouge" (02:44) *
13. Jim Jones at Botany Bay (Jennifer Jason Leigh, featuring Kurt Russell) (04:11) ****
14. Neve - #2 (02:06) ****
15. "Uncle charlie's stew" (01:42) *
16. I quattro passeggeri (01:50) *****
17. La musica prima del massacro (02:02) ****
18. L'inferno bianco - Synth (03:32) *****
19. The suggestive Oswaldo Mobray (00:48) *
20. Now you're all alone (David Hess) (01:31) ***
21. Sangue e neve (02:06) *****
22. L'inferno bianco - Ottoni (03:33) *****
23. Neve - #3 (02:03) ****
24. Daisy's speech (01:33) *
25. La lettera di Lincoln - Strumentale (01:42) *****
26. La lettera di Lincoln - Con dialogo (Ennio Morricone, Walton Goggins) (01:47) ****
27. There won't be many coming home (Roy Orbison) (02:45) ***
28. La puntura della morte (00:28) **

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