Travel the World With Ennio Morricone’s Evocative Film Scores

Celebrate the maestro’s first Oscar with a musical trip across the continents

Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone, "Il Maestro" JOERG CARSTENSEN/epa/Corbis

It’s taken decades, but after composing more than 450 film scores by his count (IMDB clocks him in at more than 500), Ennio Morricone is finally getting his due in Hollywood. Last night, Il maestro, as he is fondly known, accepted his first competitive Oscar for the score of The Hateful Eight, becoming one of the oldest—if not the oldest—Academy Award winners of all time.

He may be best known for scoring some of Hollywood’s most popular Westerns, but the 87-year-old composer’s career is truly global. Morricone was born in Rome in 1928 and studied the trumpet at the city's National Academy of Santa Cecilia. At first, he played in an experimental jazz band and arranged music for pop acts, but Sergio Leone, a budding film director who also happened to be a former classmate of Morricone's, changed the musician's path. Morricone's work on Leone’s Dollars trilogy—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—changed perceptions of what a Western could be and put the composer on the radar of the world's greatest filmmakers.

Today, Westerns amount to only a sliver of his vast body of work. But whether he's composing and arranging music for a drama, horror or sci-fi picture, Morricone has a singular ability to create scores that establish audiences in a particular place. He achieves the effect by creating familiar, yet new sounds, borrowing musical inspirations from anywhere and everywhere.

His scores are integral to the images that run alongside them. "Soundtrack follows the image reading,” Morricone explained to London’s Radio One. “Subsequently, [the] director changes the film editing to make it fit perfectly with the music composed for the film. It’s a reciprocal interaction between music and image that should always follow this order.”

That perfect dance between image and music has finally earned the composer the Academy recognition he deserves. (Though it should be noted that he previously won an honorary Oscar at the 2007 Academy Awards.) The prolific composer shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, he went on tour as an orchestra conductor, celebrating 60 years of his music, this month, he was also honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he has already committed to scoring Quentin Tarantino's next project.

Morricone’s evocative scores are like a trip around the world. From the distinctive “ah-ee-ah-ee-ah” coyote howl from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that calls to mind a dusty shoot-'em-up town in the American West to the sweeping “Love Theme” piano ballad from Cinema Paradiso that brings a secluded Sicilian village to life, the maestro’s music crisscrosses the globe. Follow along on a tour of his most memorable scores and the locations that inspired them.

Almeria, Spain

Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy is synonymous with America’s Wild West. But in reality, the “spaghetti Westerns” (a phrase that Morricone found "annoying and unpleasant") borrowed most of their visuals from Spain.

Morricone's soaring, playful score, whether it's those quieting whistles or chaotic electric guitar notes, was designed to evoke the landscape of a desert in Almeria, Spain. Tabernas, which is Europe's only desert, is no stranger to the movie-making world. Travelers who pay a visit to “Mini-Hollywood,” as it is called, can check out three sites that pay homage to the trilogy: the Oasys Theme Park, Fort Bravo and Western Leone

Sicily, Italy

Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 Cinema Paradiso is both a love note to film and a tribute to Italy, the native country of both the director and Morricone.

The film's setting is the fictional Sicilian village of Giancaldo, inspired by Bagheria, Tornatore's birthplace. Viewers looking to find the place that fits the sweet, haunting score, composed by Morricone with his son Andrea, need look no further than Via Nino Bixio, where much of the film was shot. Though the set itself has been taken down, some filming locations still remain.

But the best place to capture the feel of the film is Cefalù, located on Sicily's north coast. Its Porta Marina is the site of one of the film's pivotal romantic moments when an outdoor screening of Ulysses is interrupted by the rain. There's plenty more romance to be found in this storybook seaside resort, which is set against the beautiful backdrop of La Rocca.

The border of Argentina and Brazil

Morricone fused Spanish and Guaraní instruments and sounds to create the emotional backdrop of The Mission. The story follows Jesuit missionaries who travel to South America to convert Guaraní people to Christianity in the 18th century. Morricone relied heavily on the oboe to create the Oscar-nominated score, as he told National Catholic Register's Edward Pentin

While the film itself is problematic—critics slammed it for its violence and its portrayal of enslaved indigenous peoples—its settings are striking. Roger Ebert writes that its locations within the borderlands of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil are "spectacular—especially a waterfall that supplies the great opening image of a crucified missionary floating to his doom."

The waterfall is Iguazu Falls, which straddles Brazil and Argentina. The falls' 275 individual drops are so incredible that when Eleanor Roosevelt saw them, she allegedly commented, "Poor Niagara."

Casbah of Algiers

Director Gillo Pontecorvo didn't incorporate newsreel footage into his semi-documentary The Battle of Algiers, which records Algeria’s struggle against French rule in 1954, but he did film where the events actually took place, mostly in the Casbah of Algiers.

This is one of the few films in which Morricone shares his composer credit, alongside Pontecorvo. Morricone credits the director with coming up with those four notes that “became the essence of the film,” but IndieWire's Nikola Grozdanovic adds that "it was the Maestro himself who arranged them into the score."

Today, the Casbah of Algiers is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Located on the Mediterranean coast, it is filled with historic mosques and Ottoman-style palaces built around the citadel and contains remains of the trading post first established there in the 4th century B.C.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Morricone's Oscar-nominated score for Bugsy captures the seedy glamour of Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel, the 1940s mob boss who helped turn Las Vegas into a city of sin. The film's most powerful number, "Bugsy (Act of Faith)" has a haunting trumpet solo that sticks around long after the song, and film, ends.

Those looking to experience Sin City the way Siegel did can visit the hotel he helped create: the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. Visitors can see a bronze plaque memorializing Siegel near the hotel's wedding chapel or choose to stay where Siegel did, in the "Presidential Suite." When the mobster was in residence there, the suite contained bulletproof windows and a secret ladder in the closet—a direct route to the garage, where a getaway car was always at the ready.

Lower East Side, New York

For Sergio Leone's masterful gangster film, Once Upon a Time in America, Morricone mixed things up with pan pipes that paint an unforgettable picture of Manhattan's Lower East Side.

While the movie's famous bar, Fat Moe's, isn't real—it was created in Rome for the film, where a meticulous recreation of New York's Lower East Side was built—rumor has it that it was modeled after a real bar. It's the one where Leone first met the author of The Hoods, the book upon which Once Upon a Time in America is based. Today the area is much more gentrified than when Grey and Leone shared a drink, but Morricone's score preserves a sense of the city's run-down past.

Chicago, Illinois

None
( Suzette Barnett/Garden Photo World/Corbis)

Prohibition-era Chicago is on full display in the 1987 film The Untouchables, a gangster film that follows the struggles between lawman Eliot Ness and fabled mobster Al Capone. Morricone elevates the brutal, bloody period piece with a stylish, triumphant score.

Many historic Chicago locations add color to the music. As Vincent Canby writes in his review for the New York Times, the film "make extensive use of locations to be found only in Chicago." Recapture the movie's intrigue with visits to the Auditorium Hotel and Theater, the Balaban & Katz Chicago Theater, which was used as Capone's hotel, and The Rookery, an architectural masterpiece that served as the Chicago police headquarters in the film. 

Alberta, Canada

Terrence Malick's drama Days of Heaven captures the beauty of Texas prairies lovingly—and lavishly. The film has racked up its share of critiques for a lackluster plot, but that doesn't take away from its aesthetics. The Village Voice called it "the most gorgeously photographed film ever made." But it's impossible to talk about the film without mentioning Morricone's equally beautiful score.

Like the Dollar franchise, Malick's drama wasn't shot in the Texas panhandle. Rather, its beautiful shots of wheat are captured in Canada—mostly Alberta, along with Calgary's Heritage Park. For those looking to run through four-foot-tall fields of wheat, Alberta’s golden-hued crops are the thing to visit. They take over this northern destination in the fall.

Antarctica

Antarctica is one of Earth's most remote, far-flung locations—a location which captures the mood of John Carpenter's sci-fi horror movie, The Thing. The plot follows the horror that the title creature unleashes when it's thawed by researchers after being entombed in ice for thousands of years. Fittingly, Morricone's iconic score is full of paranoia, creating a slowly building sense of terror in the isolated Antarctic setting.

In an interesting pop culture wrinkle, when Quentin Tarantino approached Morricone to score The Hateful Eight, the composer was booked and couldn't commit to a full original score. But he realized that unused music from the Carpenter film could work in a new way to capture the dark, wintery setting of Tarantino's flick. It worked—as Morricone's new Oscar proves.

While the continent is famously inhospitable, intrepid adventurers looking for the chilling aesthetic Morricone captures in his score can join the approximately 37,000 visitors that make the trip to Antarctica each year. The number one way to go? Work for one of Antarctica's research stations, Outside magazine's Eric Larsen writes. Just don't thaw out any suspicious creatures during your stay.