Something to Do with Death
Paperback: 570 pages
Publisher: Faber and Faber (6 Mar 2000)
Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.2 x 4.8 cm
Christopher Frayling, author of the definitive tome on the magic and mayhem of Italian Western movies, SPAGHETTI WESTERNS, has written this exhaustive, encyclopedic, and thoroughly engrossing first-ever biography of Sergio Leone. Half bio and half analytical appreciation of his work as a cineartiste, Frayling paints an honest portrayal of Leone, recognizing and accepting his flaws while examining in depth his artistry and vision that virtually revolutionized the Western.
Frayling spends the first four chapters (a hundred odd pages) looking at Leone’s influences as he learned to love American movies from imported Hollywood films during the 1940s, and his nepotistic first involvement in the Italian film industry (his father was a prolific director). Frayling described in depth his role as assistant director or Hollywood-Italian liaison on such films as QUO VADIS?, THE NUN’S STORY and BEN-HUR, and as second-unit director on Robert Aldrich’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH. We learn his first experiences as a director with THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, and how he came to create A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (originally known as THE MAGNIFICENT STRANGER). Frayling details script and political problems that hampered the young Leone, and his initial reluctance to hire a former schoolmate to write the film’s musical score.
Thankfully, Leone was won over by the young composer, Ennio Morricone, and the ensuing association between the two became as important a cinematic collaboration as any Hitchcock and Herrmann, Truffaut and Delerue, Spielberg and Williams. As Leone defined the visual scope, languid pacing, and dynamic energy of the Italian Westerns, so did Morricone define its eclectic musical sound. In his book, Frayling spends almost as much time talking about Morricone – how he worked with Leone on these films and what his music did to accentuate their artistry and style. He also includes a fairly comprehensive biography of the composer.
Single chapters cover in detail the creation of each of Leone’s films from FISTFUL to ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERCA. Frayling provides as much historical retrospective on the creation and development of each of Leone’s films as he does with his examinations of their artistic and musical nuances and intricacies. Single chapters cover in detail the creation of each of Leone’s films from FISTFUL to ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, and the value and import – and uniqueness – of the music in each one is continually reinforced. How Leone and Morricone arrived at the remarkable eclecticism of music that became the FISTFUL OF DOLLARS score, the style of which evolved throughout each succeeding collaboration, is described in detail.
The book includes two sections of black and white photos, early pictures of the director, and some remarkable shots of him working with his actors and crew behind the scenes. A number of photos from family scrapbooks are also included. Of particular interest is a photo from the Instituto Saint Juan Baptiste de la Salle school in 1937, showing Leone and Morricone in all their youthful exuberance; contrast this with the photo beneath it, from a class reunion in the late 1980s, not long before Leone’s death. The youthful exuberance of the first picture is gone, replaced with a world-weary sobriety, but the two artists are standing beside each other, impassive but impressive by virtue of more than a quarter century of accomplishments.
A lot of us who got into film music in the 1960s and 1970s did so by one of two means – either the James Bond music of John Barry or the Italian Western music of Ennio Morricone reached through our rock and pop musical upbringings and opened the doors to a bold new world of symphonic and symph-electric fusion film music. For me it was the latter – just as Leone opened my eyes to the power of cinema – and Frayling’s perceptive and historical exegesis is remarkable. For both Leone and Morricone, he does what all retrospective appreciations should do: they urge us to return to the films and witness them anew, with a renewed appreciated benefited from the insight of the writer’s elucidation. A touching recollection is included in Frayling’s description of Leone’s funeral in 1989: how the assembled congregation burst into an admiring round of applause as Morricone performed the main theme from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST as the hearse arrived carrying the director’s body – a poignant tribute to the power that music has always had with the persona and the art of Sergio Leone.
As a filmmaker, Leone crafted a style and a dynamic all his own. By examining in depth his cinematic accomplishments, and by valuing the splendid use of music that Leone’s films constantly demonstrated, Frayling’s book is a striking record of both a splendid cinematic and a cinemusical accomplishment.
Randall D. Larson