- Composed by Ennio Morricone
- Decca / 2015 / 72m
Quentin Tarantino has used music in his films very strikingly, from the start of his career; the soundtrack albums have all been very popular and big-sellers. Lots of those albums have featured music by Ennio Morricone – all of it from the 1960s and 70s, all of it brilliant. It’s hard to imagine Inglorious Basterds in particular without the indelible Morricone music (Allonsanfan‘s “Rabbia e Tarantella” one of the most explosive things he ever wrote, Revolver‘s “Un Amico” one of the prettiest; and in the same film there’s The Battle of Algiers, The Return of Ringo, Death Rides a Horse and The Big Gundown); Navajo Joe‘s guttural wail became one of the signature sounds of the second part of Kill Bill, which also features Il Mercenario‘s “L’Arena”, a genuine contender when it comes to the most brilliant pieces of music he wrote for a western.
For his last film Django Unchained, Tarantino not only curated another collection of Morricone gems, he even got an original song from his musical hero, “Ancora Qui” (sung by Elisa). It was fairly clear that if the director ever did something that seemed unlikely – to commission an original score – there would only be one person he’d want to write it. When he was making The Hateful Eight, precisely that happened – and probably to his own surprise given the rather unflattering comments Morricone has made about Tarantino in the past (hurriedly retracted in the interview rounds for this movie), the legendary composer accepted the job. He initially didn’t think he would be able to do it, then thought maybe he could write one theme but nothing more, and he suggested the director use parts of his largely-unused music from The Thing, which has been widely reported and subsequently Chinese whispers have somehow led to similarly widely-reported (but entirely inaccurate) reports that the original music he wrote for this film is actually not original at all, but based on that score. In fact, while there is music written for The Thing (and Exorcist II) contained in The Hateful Eight, there’s a substantial amount of original music too, 50 minutes of which finds its way onto the soundtrack album.
Morricone wrote the music – as with many of his great scores – without watching the film, basing it entirely on the script and allowing Tarantino to do as he wished with it. That one theme he initially promised the director is what became the exceptional album opener “L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock”. Tarantino said that the composer told him the piece “would have a forward momentum that would suggest the stagecoach moving through the winter landscape, but with an ominous sound overall that would suggest the violence to come.” And frankly that’s the perfect description. It opens with a growling bassoon set against a slightly discordant pedal note from the violins, drums adding that momentum Morricone talked about. Plucked cellos and basses join, some ominous lower brass too, then staccato strings begin to accompany that bassoon melody, swirling around. Finally after a couple of minutes comes a pause in that momentum before the central melody is taken up now by a pair of trumpets, a hint of The Untouchables about the way they dance off each other. A new, urgent B phrase of the theme comes up, male voices enter, the melody becomes more and more intense before an explosive cacophony of brass pushes the pressure valve even tighter. The frantic B phrase alternates with the main melody to the conclusion. It’s an exceptional seven and a half minutes of film music – of music – that recalls the composer’s great crime scores of the 1970s and 80s, displaying a remarkable intensity and vigour. A second piece later on the album with the same title focuses on the most overtly violent part of the cue, with the brass and the voices, and is a nice little version of it in vignette form. In “I Quattro Passaggeri” it’s the bassoon section that is the focus, with the drum kit accompaniment.
After this comes the score’s second main idea, introduced in the “Overture” but heard throughout, a swirling theme for strings (quite Herrmannesque) which in that piece includes a ticking clock motif (if truth be told one of the score’s few similarities to the composer’s previous westerns). It’s tense, slow-paced but with a distinctively violent undercurrent and it forms the backbone of the whole score. It was written to play in counterpoint to the main melody of “L’Ultima Diligenza” and that’s exactly what happens in “Narratore Letterario”, which sees the two themes running in parallel until a dissonant passage of orchestral violence. The fullest exploration of the melody comes in three pieces called “Neve”, the first of which (subtitled “Versione Integrale”) runs for twelve minutes and is exceptionally tense, swirling round in psychological horror style.
While much of the score is constructed from the building blocks of those two themes, there are some standout moments that aren’t. “Sei Cavalli” is an angry, gruesome blast of dissonance which leads into the much quieter, but in its way no less violent, “Raggi di Sole Sulla Montagna” which features some remarkably florid writing for winds in particular. There are two versions of a piece called “L’Inferno Bianco” (great title!) which is where the score is at its most Herrmannesque, especially the ghostly strings and winds – the percussion, not so much – in fact that’s again very reminiscent of Morricone’s crime scores of 30-40 years ago. The first take is subtitled “synth” (which means “synth”), the second “ottoni” (“brass”). I will leave you guessing as to the difference between the two. By far the warmest moment of the score (in fact, perhaps the only moment of warmth at all) comes very late, in “La Lettera di Lincoln”, with a gorgeously noble trumpet solo. The album ends brilliantly, with the briefest of cues – “La Puntura della Morte” is only 27 seconds but wraps things up with a delicious few bars of suspense to close things off.
Inevitably, the album is not just about Morricone (indeed you have to squint quite hard to even see his name on the front cover of it, and the spine reads “Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight – Morricone/Tarantino”) with the director having decided for whatever reason that people would love to hear snippets of dialogue from the film, mercifully indexed separately. (Perhaps he is not yet aware of the comparatively recent innovation home video, which allows people to relive dialogue from their favourite films by watching them.) There’s a small smattering of songs, the best of which is undoubtedly “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home”, a 1967 recording by the great Roy Orbison.
I don’t really believe this was the type of music Quentin Tarantino dreamt of when he gave Morricone the job and it wouldn’t surprise me if the composer absolutely loved that fact, but to Tarantino’s great credit he just left Morricone alone to do whatever he thought was best. It’s excellent film music and in “L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock” has a truly remarkable piece, but by design large parts of it are rather uncomfortable to listen to and so I can’t honestly say it is going to have the same repeat-play value as some of the other best scores of the year (including the other one by Morricone himself). It’s scarcely believable that an 87 year old could write music of this intensity and at times this anger, but Ennio Morricone is hardly a typical 87 year old and if as seems likely he wins a reasonable number of the awards given out early in the new year then they certainly won’t be a kind of “career award”, they will certainly be for the quality of this music.