Let’s not kid ourselves: movies would not be the same without the music. Think Jaws, think Psycho, think Star Wars, hell think Ghostbusters; any one of these films without its score isn’t even a shadow of the experience we all know and love. The sounds do more than just set the mood of a scene though, they also help the audience feel what is going on rather than just seeing it. There’s a reason why most of us instantly recognize themes and can put images to scores; the music has touched us in some way and affected the way we comprehend and remember the film.
With that, I invite you to think of one of the best movies of all time: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (and no, that’s not my opinion, that’s a fact). Go ahead, reminisce away. What comes to mind? Clint Eastwood wearing a poncho and smoking a cigar, obviously. Then there’s Angel Eyes’s sneering face, the bridge scene, and of course the iconic graveyard standoff. But despite these images, perhaps the most beautiful of the film’s subtleties lies within its score and this is no accident.
Ennio Morricone is hardly a newcomer to the composing business, and even when the movie first came out in 1966 he already had numerous major compositions under his belt. A genius in the art of mating musical with visual tones, Morricone harnesses the perfect balance of tension, urgency, and that unmistakably badass Western spirit in his tracks that seems to stitch the whole movie together. No one can forget the sound of the film’s main theme for its vibrant guitar riffs, trademark whistling and yodeling, and adrenaline-inducing climax. The soundtrack’s most popular and perhaps most seminal track, “The Ecstasy of Gold”, resonates with the viewer for its gradual build, non-lyrical (but nonetheless penetrating) vocals, Western flare, and epic tone; and as Tuco races to find Arch Stanton’s tombstone the audience is absolutely powerless to think about anything but the story they are temporarily a part of.
More important than how the score is brilliant though is why it is. We can tear apart each element of each song, inspect every sound that noise into every track, analyze it, and put it back together, but still we would only have a technical answer. The magic of such a work doesn’t come from knowing exactly what it is or how it was assembled but rather from understanding it the way Morricone intended us to: by feeling the music and allowing it to take us deeper into the film. Because Morricone knows we are competent. We as an audience can see the action and comprehend the plot of the movie. Without help, we can sense the characters’ emotions and follow the events, we know what is going on and why. The one thing we can’t do on our own is put ourselves in the middle of that other world, and this is why I believe the music in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” is so powerful: it does just that.
So, the next time you go to watch the movie, I challenge you to think about the music. Try to imagine what the film would be like without it, listen for certain parts of the movie that are moving because of it, or close your eyes and picture the images it evokes. Most importantly though, appreciate it. It takes an iconic piece of music to land a lyric-less title track at the number 4 spot on the Billboard pop album chart, and if I’m being honest, “Ecstasy of Gold” gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. They just don’t make 'em like this anymore.