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Appreciating the Music of Ennio Morricone

A Fistful of Music, a box-set of composer Ennio Morricone's music, was recently released by Rhino records. This interview originally aired on Sep. 28, 1995.


Other segments from the episode on February 2, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 2, 2007: Interview with Peter O'Toole; Commentary on Ennio Morricone; Interview with Christopher Frayling.


DATE February 2, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Profile: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead appreciates Italian composer
Ennio Morricone's music

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

After writing more than 500 movie scores and getting five Oscar nominations,
at age 78, Italian composer Ennio Morricone will be honored at this year's
Academy Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award. It's a big month for
Morricone, perhaps best remembered for his distinctive scores for Sergio Leone
movies like "A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good,
the Bad, and the Ugly." Among Morricone's other scores are the "Casualties of
War," "The Untouchables," "Bugsy," "The Mission" and "Days of Heaven."
Tomorrow night in New York, Morricone conducts several of his scores at the
Radio City Music Hall, his first ever American concert.

Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this appreciation.

(Soundbite of music from "Navajo Joe")

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: That's Ennio Morricone's theme from "Navajo Joe," a
1966 spaghetti Western starring Burt Reynolds. The theme was so over-the-top
it wasn't even used. In the '60s and '70s especially, Morricone had a knack
for appropriate musical hysteria. He could pump up a bad movie or one that
just looked dumb, like "Exorcist II: The Heretic," the one where James Earl
Jones dresses up as a grasshopper.

(Soundbite of music from "Exorcist II: The Heretic)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: One Morricone trademark is unconventional use of the voice,
which is as likely to giggle or belch as sing a melody. He's big on whistling
too, so his fixation is really about the mouth, which can make music without
the aid of an instrument. This tack is psychologically shrewd. It adds a
human dimension that makes even seedy exploitation fare seem more authentic.
His scores relate to the movies on their own level. It reinforces Navajo
Joe's raw male energy and "Exorcist II"'s '70s view of evil as a bad acid trip
with the Doors. It's no accident Morricone's most memorable work was for the
great Sergio Leone. He underscored Leone's wide-open landscapes where
anything can happen. That comes through even in the way the music is mixed,
with some instruments in close-up, some in the distance and something bizarre
always lurking at the edges.

(Soundbite of music from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Spaghetti Westerns were a riot of anachronisms, stylistic
clashes and messy grotesqueries that fit Ennio Morricone like a saddle. He'd
think like an audacious director, making weird juxtapositions. He'd take you
straight from Marlboro man cliches to psychedelic effects that parallel what
the Beatles were up to at the same time. This was 1966, the same era as
"Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane."

(Soundbite of music from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: As with most aspects of moviemaking, the composer relied on
sympathetic collaborators. Morricone in his prime had a stock company of
striking players, chief among them whistler and guitarist Alessandro
Alessandroni. It's hard to imagine what Morricone's early music would sound
like if he hadn't known a good whistler.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the
University of Kansas.

We're talking today about the music of composer Ennio Morricone, who'll be
recognized for lifetime achievement at the Academy Awards later this month.

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Interview: Historian Christopher Frayling discusses spaghetti

We're talking today about the music of composer Ennio Morricone, who'll be
recognized for lifetime achievement at the Academy Awards later this month.
Let's hear more about Morricone's music from Christopher Frayling, the author
of "Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone." Frayling spoke
with Terry Gross in 2005.


The music from the Westerns is so--it's just so good. How did he--Morricone
and Leone had vaguely known each other in elementary school. How did they
hook up as adults?

Mr. CHRISTOPHER FRAYLING: Yes, they'd known each other in the 1930s. And,
in fact, there's a famous school photo where they're standing almost next to
each other, taken in the mid-30s. But when Leone was making "A Fistful of
Dollars," he had to choose a composer, and he rejected the composer that the
producers had suggested and went to meet Morricone. He'd forgotten they were
at school together.

But they talked, and they concocted a kind of anti-Western score, you know,
that whereas the traditional Hollywood Western had a very symphonic, rich
score, school of Aaron Copland or Jaron Morass, you know, your folk tunes
reworked as symphonies, they wanted something that was much more hip, much
more related to pop. So you get a Fender Stratocaster guitar as used by The
Beach Boys or The Shadows. You get whistling, which is associated with kind
of solitude in the desert. You get a lot of Italian folk instruments, the
marranzanu or Jew's harp, you know, `doyng, doyng, doyng, doyng,' and a thing
called the argilophone, which is a ceramic instrument with holes in it where
you go, doo-oo-oo-oo-oo, and that sort of thing.

So it's Italian folk instruments plus rock music of the mid-1960s, and it was
an astonishingly raucous, noisy sound which became a huge best-seller as a
soundtrack album, "Fistful of Dollars." And it's nearer Tarantino than Aaron
Copland, you know. It's kind of like a pop music sampler. In fact, when I
went to see "Kill Bill," part one, Tarantino's movie, I thought he'd stolen my
record collection. The soundtrack was absolutely those kind of thing. But
it's raucous, it's off it's mark, it's youthful, and it's not hooked into the
classical tradition at all.

GROSS: And...

Mr. FRAYLING: And it works great. It's also very--a lot of sense of humor.
It punctuates the action in a very amusing way sometimes.

GROSS: And on the soundtracks of the movies, in the actual movies, gunshots
are used as if they're part of the score.

Mr. FRAYLING: Yes. In fact, some concrete sounds. You know, it's very
trendy in the mid-1960s to experiment with music in the spirit of John Cage,
the composer. And John Cage famously wrote about a piece of music that
consisted of silence. And the idea was the pianist would come in, sit down at
his piano, and there'd be silence, and the sounds of the concert hall would
become the concert, so the coughing and the rustling and the sweets being
eaten in the bag and the shuffling of feet and the rustling of the program
become the music. So all sound is music. This was a very fashionable idea in
the mid-60s, and they picked up on this for the Italian Westerns. Morricone
was very interested in it. In fact, he'd been to a seminar with John Cage in
the late '50s, so gunshots and whip cracks and bells and choirs singing
incomprehensible lyrics.

I asked the choirmaster about the soundtrack of "Fistful of Dollars." I said,
`What are you actually singing? You know, what is it? Is it "quick, get
back" or "we must fight" or...' He said, `I can't remember.' It was just
incomprehe--they're just sounds, you know, and the human voice is used as
another musical instrument rather than as a vocal line, so you get a lot of
humming in these films. And it's interesting. It's sort of avant-garde music
meets pop, and they're classic soundtracks, and they're a very important
element in these films.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the opening credit music from the soundtrack
of the first Leone-Morricone collaboration, "A Fistful of Dollars," and we'll
hear those gunshots being used as part of the score.

(Soundbite of "A Fistful of Dollars" soundtrack)

DAVIES: The music of Ennio Morricone. We'll more of Terry's interview with
Christopher Frayling after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We're paying tribute to Ennio Morricone, who will be honored with a
lifetime achievement award at the upcoming Academy Awards. He composed the
scores for many of the classic spaghetti Westerns. Let's listen to a scene
from Sergio Leone's first spaghetti Western, "A Fistful of Dollars." Clint
Eastwood is a gunslinger who has just arrived in a dusty Mexican town, where
he runs into a bunch of bad guys who start razzing him. They have no idea who
they're dealing with.

(Soundbite of "A Fistful of Dollars"; music)

Unidentified Man: Adios, Amigo. Listen, stranger, didn't you get the idea we
don't like to see bad boys like you in town? Go get your mule. You let him
get away from you? (laughs)

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: See, that's what I want to talk to you about. He's
feeling real bad.

Man: Huh?

Mr. EASTWOOD: My mule. You see, he got all riled up when you went and fired
those shots at his feet.

Man: Hey, you making some kind of joke?

Mr. EASTWOOD: No. You see, I understand you men were just playing around,
but the mule--he just doesn't get it. Of course, if you were to all

(Soundbite of laughter; music)

Mr. EASTWOOD: I don't think it's nice, you laughing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EASTWOOD: See, my mule don't like people laughing. Gets the crazy idea
you're laughing at him. So if you'll apologize, like I know you're going to,
I might convince him that you really didn't mean it.

(Soundbite of music; gunshots; horses)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Why did Sergio Leone love Westerns? Why did he want to make them in

Mr. FRAYLING: Well, you've got to imagine a child growing up in 1930s Rome,
at a time when Mussolini was the dictator and when most American movies were
banned, and those that were seen were dubbed into Italian. And the young
Leone first saw Hollywood Western movies in the 1930s at that time, and his
heroes were Gary Cooper and Clark Gable and films like "Stagecoach." And to
him, they represented an absolute model of freedom; that what--he lived in
suburban Rome in cramped conditions, and he saw these wide-open spaces, this
unimaginable desert that goes on forever. He saw these--he couldn't
understand what they were saying. He couldn't--he never heard--in fact, he
never learned to speak English, Sergio Leone. That's what's so extraordinary.
But they were dubbed into a different language not very well. But
nevertheless they clicked in his mind.

Then in the 1950s, when he went into the film industry, he found that nobody
was really very interested in the Western; that a lot of Hollywood veterans
directors went over to Italy to make epics, films like "Ben-Hur" and "Helen of
Troy" and "Quo Vadis." And Leone hung around these films; sometimes he was the
assistant director. And he talked to directors like Fred Zinnemann, who'd
made "High Noon"; Robert Aldrich, who'd made "The Last Sunset" and "Apache"
and films like that. And they all said to him, `The Western's dead. It's
finished. We don't make Westerns anymore.'

So, basically, Leone made Westerns because Hollywood had stopped making them
and because in Europe and particularly in Italy there was this huge interest
in the Western and a huge knowledge of it as well. So the whole thing starts
in a kind of folk memory of American Westerns that went back to the 1930s, and
it's partly political. But the other thing was that Leone felt that Westerns
had got a bit talky; there was too much talking in them. He liked Westerns
where Rin Tin Tin did all the thinking, you know, old-fashioned Westerns
where--lots and lots of action and not too much talk. He didn't like
psychology. Freudian Westerns got on his nerves, films like "The Left Handed
Gun" with Paul Newman, where, you know, you feel if there'd been a social
worker around, Billy the Kid would never have happened. Films like that he
didn't like.

He liked films where--you know, a lot of shooting, a lot of riding, a lot of
action, a lot of landscape. So he wanted to bring back the kind of innocence
of the Western.

GROSS: A lot of the Italian Westerns had international casts, so...


GROSS: And you can almost see that in the faces. I mean, there's something
very, like, an ethnic variety of faces.

Mr. FRAYLING: That's true, and very often, it went with co-production. You
know, the "Fistful of Dollars" is a co-production between West Germany, Spain
and Italy, so you have, Italian actors, Spanish actors, West German actors.
There were a whole series of West German Westerns made at the same time in the
mid-1960s where the Native Americans are all played by Yugoslavians, if you're
following me.


Mr. FRAYLING: So you can tell the Native Americans, 'cause they're
Yugoslavian, and...

GROSS: In America, they're all played by Jews probably.

Mr. FRAYLING: And, you know, you're quite right. There's this sort of
ethnic mix. But I think--and in fact in, you know, in "Once Upon a Time in
the West," Claudia Cardinale, Italian; Charles Bronson, American; Henry Fonda,
America; Gabriele Ferzetti, the man who plays the railroad baron, Italian;
Frank Wolff, an American actor who'd moved over after the blacklist of the
early '50s to Rome and was making his living in the Italian film industry.
It's quite a mix of actors.

But I think it points to another thing, and that is that when these films came
out, they were treated as ersatz American movies, you know, carbon-copy
Westerns, Westerns which were trying to ape Hollywood. I don't believe that.
These are Italian movies. I think they're really best understood as part of
Italian culture and European culture. They were originally made--well,
"Fistful of Dollars" and "For a Few Dollars More" were originally made for the
home audience. In the 1960s, southern Italian audiences went to the cinema
more often than any other audiences in the world outside America. Southern
Italian audiences went to the cinema twice a week on average as adults. There
was no television in southern Italy in the mid-'60s, so all the cultural
references are for that audience. There's lots of references to Italian
paintings, to Roman Catholicism. There are bells and churches and monks and
cemeteries and crosses and angels and the interiors of churches and the whole
iconography of Roman Catholicism.

I think one difference between the Italian Western and the American Western is
that in the end, the American Western is a Protestant genre based upon a
Protestant view of the world in the 19th century, whereas the Italian Western
is a Catholic genre, you know, at that fundamental level, not in an up-front
way, but that's just the visual references.

GROSS: Where are the desert scenes shot...

Mr. FRAYLING: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Leone's movies?

Mr. FRAYLING: The desert scenes were filmed in southern Spain in Almeria,
which is actually a slightly different color to the real American West. It's
very yellow and olivey in color. But if anyone goes to southern Spain on
their holidays, some of the sets are still there, remarkably. They were built
so well that the whole of the town of El Paso, which was built for "A Few
Dollars More," is there in the middle of the Spanish desert.


Mr. FRAYLING: It's extraordinary. You're driving along, and you come across
this town. So, yeah, it transformed the economy of southern Spain.

GROSS: Well, you know, because the casts were international, you know, we
hear Eastwood's real voice in America when we hear the American version, but a
lot of the actors are dubbed in the early Leone films. And you can tell
they're dubbed. They sound like the old "Hercules" movies, where everybody is
dubbed. So, like, that undercuts things a little bit, you know, because the
dubbing is just so bad.

Mr. FRAYLING: Well, it's interesting. You know, every Italian movie of the
'60s was dubbed. It partly arises from building their major studio on the
flight path of Fiumicino Airport, so planes go over all the time. They just
didn't have the convention of natural sound, and everything was
post-synchronized, Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, all these films, and so the
dubbing is not unusual. I think in the early Leones, yeah, because they
didn't have much of a budget, the dubbing isn't very good. But I think the
sound design of these films does have a quality of its own. The gunshots
sound like cannons, and the cannons sound like nuclear explosions.
Everything's pumped up on the soundtrack. And Leone once said to me that
sound is 40 percent, at least, of the experience of a film. And that was
quite new in the '60s, too, so there are pluses to the dubbing, as well as

GROSS: Christopher Frayling, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very

Mr. FRAYLING: Thank you. I've enjoyed it very much.

DAVIES: Christopher Frayling speaking with Terry Gross. He's the author of
"Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone."

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new documentary about Ralph Nader. This is


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Review: New York Magazine's David Edelstein reviews "An
Unreasonable Man," a documentary about Ralph Nader

Since the mid-60s, when Ralph Nader published "Unsafe at Any Speed" and took
on the auto industry, he's been an unparalleled force for consumer activism.
He inspired scores of young idealists to come and work for him. One of them,
Henriette Mantel, has codirected a new documentary about Nader called "An
Unreasonable Man." The film sets out to examine Nader's long career in light
of his controversial run for president in 2000. Film critical David Edelstein
has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Ten years ago, if you'd mentioned Ralph Nader at a
gathering of corporate Republicans, you'd have brought the party to a halt.
With his pesky crusades in the name of public safety, this humorless,
unbribable activist cost multiple industries billions if not trillions of
dollars, even if one could argue it was in their interest to change.

Today the same pall descends over many liberal Democrats, who regard Nader as
the ultimate spoiler, the man whose presidential candidacy in the year 2000
helped George W. Bush to squeak by, the rest being history. In their
documentary "An Unreasonable Man," Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan do a
brilliant job of putting Nader's stubborn presidential run in context, showing
how, like it or not, it was consistent with everything he'd done in his
remarkable career. But filmmakers let the Nader haters have their say. The
2000 election takes up half the film, and we hear people like Todd Gitlin call
Nader everything from megalomaniacal to morally dishonest. But the movie is
named for this quote from George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman." "The
reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in
trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the
unreasonable man."

What makes the film so compelling is its perfectly fluid line. Simply put,
the private and public Nader are the same. There are no contradictions with
which to grapple, no tangents to explore.

The son of a Lebanese American who talked politics nonstop at his diner and
dinner table, young Ralph takes his father's passions about a million steps
further. When a friend is paralyzed in a car crash, he goes after the
automobile companies over vehicles that not only lack seat belts but do little
to protect drivers in collisions. This is a world in which people are
routinely impaled on their steering columns. Nader becomes a household name
when he's tailed and harassed by General Motors in the late '60s, a time when
corporations are easy to demonize. In a congressional hearing, the head of GM
actually apologizes to him. And irony of ironies, the money Nader gets from
GM ends up bankrolling his raiders.

What Nader's Raiders accomplished still makes one's jaw drop. OSHA, the Clean
Air Act, the Freedom of Information Act, there was Nader leading the charge.
Hear a few of the early disciples, among them perennial New York candidate
Mark Green, remember those heady days. And then Nader answers questions from
the public about his nonexistent family life.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

Unidentified Man #1: Everybody worked until 2 in the morning or so, and then
we just collapsed and would get up at 8 and start working again. And were
there, you know, 24/7. It was just ridiculous.

Unidentified Man #2: He would always work harder and ask more of himself than
he would ask of anybody else, so he led by the force of his example.

Unidentified Woman: Do you install those values in your children and how do
you go about doing that?

Mr. RALPH NADER: Well, I don't have any children.

Woman: Oh.

Mr. NADER: I'm married to General Motors.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Nader isn't really joking. An aesthetic, with a love life
that even his dogged biographer couldn't uncover, he turns often harshly on
loyalists when in his eyes they compromise too quickly. In an interview he
says, `Associates, friendships, sentiment are secondary to pushing lifesaving
statutes into law.'

Mantel and Skrovan find the roots of his bitterness in the Reagan era, when
people who devoted their careers to tearing down government regulatory
agencies are suddenly appointed to oversee them and when the so-called "party
of the little guy" begins accepting PAC money from the same big corporations
as the Republicans. They show how in the '90s the Democrats and the Clinton
administration freeze him out for fear of alienating business leaders, which
leads Nader to assert in 2000 that there isn't a dime's bit of difference
between Bush and Al Gore.

The movie shows Nader being escorted off the grounds of a presidential debate
to which he has a ticket, which only strengthens his drive to have an impact
on the election. What the filmmakers don't get from Nader is an admission
that however exhilarating his grass-roots campaign felt at the time, it
finished him politically in a way that no corporation could have. "An
Unreasonable Man" does much to rehabilitate his legacy. His detractors might
have reason to be bitter, but perhaps, as they buckle their seat belts,
they'll concede that no one alive deserves less to be a pariah.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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