GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, THE: SOUNDTRACK
Review by Brad Green:
Can you remember when you first heard The Good The Bad And The Ugly’s theme tune? Sergio Leone’s seminal movie was originally released in 1966, and for those of us born later (a demographic into which I can just claim to scrape), it is likely that we were first exposed to composer Ennio Morricone’s ubiquitous motif in complete ignorance of context. Whether a neighbour whistled it over a backyard fence; a radio jingle exploited its infectious character; or we happened to catch a rodeo band hamming it up; somehow, somewhere we would have almost certainly come to know that unforgettable melody before we ever knew its derivation.
I wonder what we made of it? How it struck us during that period before it belonged forevermore in our minds to the original Spaghetti Western? When it was just something that everyone seemed to know how to whistle, like that other more effusive tune, the one that we might have already connected to The Lone Ranger but probably not yet to William Tell.
Whistle Morricone’s tune -- and I’ll warrant the composer wishes he could collect a royalty for every time somebody has -- and it’s a neatly resolving ditty. Then listen to the full arrangement and find yourself at a loss for categorisation. The whistling interplays with squawking brass; there are octave switches across an incessant beat, vocal grunts and animalistic wails, twanged guitar runs and trumpet fanfares. Calls of the wild and promised treasure. Absurdity, irony and pathos all packaged up together. Suspense and fatalism as unlikely bedfellows. It’s the turgid melodrama of three firearms aimed at each other in a sun-drenched stalemate; and the laconic sangfroid of a Man With No Name, a square jaw and a cowboy hat.
Knowing the film becomes more important as the soundtrack progresses. The main theme is extraordinary in that it plays equally well as a key element of the film’s success and as pure entertainment value, but the other cues are less catchy and more ambient, settling down into the heat and haze of Leone’s landscape. As the production becomes sparser, you notice the particular texture of the score, evoking spaciousness with bells and trumpet calls and a generous application of reverb that almost becomes a character in its own right . . . The Echoey, perhaps?
Because the film used repetitive motifs so successfully the score totals less than thirty minutes. Everything from the length of the cues to the orchestrations being economical. A couple of mellow and haunting songs for the civil war sequences are the only divergence from a soundtrack that you can never separate from Leone’s images once you know them. Morricone loves to play in a contrapuntal manner with expectation, letting his music smirk when the tension is highest and build ominously when the action idles. On its own the score is never less than atmospheric, but it works best when considered in context, a reference point for the counterpoint.
Such a stylised piece of cinema as The Good The Bad And The Ugly relies heavily on the interplay of its components. By embracing cliches, rejoicing in artifice, in giving style to kitsch and form to a panoply of idioms, Leone and Morricone created a postmodern work before its time. What they did for the Western, Tarantino would later do for Noir; and their films shoot to bits the barricade between art and pulp entertainment. It invites them to cavort together and celebrates the result. The Wild West becomes an operatic vista, and the ethereal soprano of the score’s penultimate cue The Ecstasy Of Gold becomes a valid backdrop for the wheeling, dealing and moral ambiguities of gun slinging bounty hunters.
This famous soundtrack like the film as a whole is a subtle work designed from the crudest template, and the great payoff from transforming pop culture into genuine art is that the nuances are so accessible. The vocabulary is known to all, and everyone is an instant connoisseur. Morricone’s score is a masterpiece for the masses and, unlike the cliches on which it’s fashioned, it should never lose its appeal.
Published November 13, 2003