Esteemed director Quentin Tarantino is a lot of things, but a fan of commissioned orchestral soundtracks he's not. The cult filmmaker is famous for raiding his extensive record collection and crafting vibrant, memorable soundtracks for the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds but until now, he's never enlisted a composer to write an original score for one of his movies. That's why his latest The Hateful Eight is a line in the sand, yielding his first official orchestral soundtrack. And it's not just any composer stepping up to the mark: Tarantino enlisted the legendary Ennio Morricone to write the score for his three hour, 70-MM Western opus, coaxing Morricone's first score in the genre for over 30 years. Further compounding the surprise is the fact that Morricone has been less-than-complimentary about Tarantino's use of music; the filmmaker has in the past been brazen in pilfering any number of classic Morricone pieces, whether it's Death Rides a Horse in Kill Bill or The Surrender (from The Big Gundown) in Inglourious Basterds, something that hasn't pleased the composer. Nevertheless, whatever tension that may have existed between the two men has clearly been put behind them, the striking end result being Morricone's most high-profile Hollywood project in over a decade and one that's yielded both an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award in the process. But listeners shouldn't go in expecting a lush, ear-worming homage to Morricone's most famous works.
In-keeping with the claustrophobic, violent nature of Tarantino's movie, The Hateful Eight soundtrack is brooding, angular and often downright angry, a kindred spirit to the composer's horror works for the likes of Dario Argento, to mention his dissonant thriller works of the 1970s. Nevertheless, it's a testament to Morricone's formidable skill that the score stands as a hypnotic and compelling listening experience. Uncomfortable though it often is the composer's undisputed mastery of the orchestra makes The Hateful Eight a dark-hued thrill to listen to, another memorable soundtrack from the maestro even as he approaches the twilight years of his astonishing career.
The score is built around a recurrent theme that first appears in opening movement "L'Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock": dark and brimming with an undercurrent of violence, it's built around a repetitive contra-bassoon movement that works away on the nerves before steadily accumulating an additional layer of unnerving strings, discordant trumpet and staccato male choir. As with all great film composers, the track conveys a clear narrative on its own terms, building over several minutes and playing various aspects of the orchestra off each other in order to elicit a vivid emotional response. In other words: classic Morricone. Midway through the album, the theme is treated to a curtailed, even more turbulent reprise, a bleakly compelling portrait of violence and despair.
The piece builds throughout the score with notably nerve-jangling interludes including the "Overture" and the lengthy, seriously impressive "Neve" in which the theme steadily builds across 12 dread-fuelled minutes. The "Overture" also marks the first occasion where the main theme merges with the score's other primary idea: a haunting chime melody that teases at the film's central mystery, in which a bunch of seemingly unrelated strangers find themselves trapped in a cabin together. It hearkens back to the watch chimes heard in Morricone's very first Spaghetti Western score A Fistful of Dollars, and it's pleasing to hear the composer honouring his remarkable musical legacy (surely Tarantino had something to do with that, too). The interweaving also occurs in the glacial and ghostly "La Musica Prima del Massacro" and "Sangue e Neve", strings steadily building and overtaking the chimes as if anticipating something truly dangerous.
Given Morricone's standing as a composer of some 500 film scores (reportedly), it's inevitable there will be call-backs to several of his works. The eerie, gliding strings of the "Overture" call to mind Lee Van Cleef's threatening material in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Meanwhile the insistent, staccato rhythms of more violent tracks like "Sei Cavalli" hearkens back to the tempestuous sound heard in classics like The Untouchables. And the two "Neve" reprises are equally tempestuous, ramping up the tension to knuckle-chewing degrees. Interestingly, Morricone presents two variations on the track named "L'Inferno Bianco", one synth-based, the other "ottoni" (Italian for brass). Accompanying one of the movie's pivotal scenes, it builds rhythmic cells of astringent strings, horn blasts and snares to establish a sense of percolating horror and tension.
It's interesting to note that in the movie itself, Tarantino decided to score certain scenes with cues called "Eternity", "Bestiality" and "Despair" from the composer's unused The Thing score. Tarantino took it upon himself to show off the material that was famously rejected by that movie's director John Carpenter, a move that works surprisingly well given how indebted The Hateful Eight is to The Thing's paranoid atmosphere. Also featured in the movie is Morricone's lyrical "Regan's Theme" from critically lambasted horror Exorcist II: The Heretic, as well as an odd little ditty named "Now You're All Alone" from notorious 1972 exploitation movie The Last House on the Left.
With the exception of the latter track, none of the aforementioned pieces appear on the album, which instead offers a full representation of the 50 minutes of music Morricone composed specifically for the movie. Nevertheless, this being a Tarantino album the score is of course interspersed with plenty of provocative dialogue excerpts from cast members Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth and others, as well as numbers from The White Stripes and Roy Orbison. Those who want the sanctity of their Morricone experience preserved would do well to program out the additional music, although in-keeping with Tarantino's other soundtracks the album as a whole flows very effectively. Everything concludes with the score's sole melodic moment: the beautifully noble, if brief, "La Lettera di Lincoln" in which a majestic trumpet solo brings everything to close. Unsurprisingly, it calls to mind a great deal of Morricone's Spaghetti Western material, most especially the haunting "The Carriage of the Spirits" cue from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Pulling the musical rug out from under us again, Morricone then ends the album with the briefest of suspenseful reprises in "La Puntura Della Morte".
After more than 60 years working across film, TV and radio, it's astonishing to note how fresh Ennio Morricone's voice remains. A towering figure not just of film music but music in general, his seemingly inexhaustible creativity will go down in cinema history; scores like The Hateful Eight demonstrate this perfectly, a combination of familiar Morricone elements that are given a violent, electrifying shakedown to make them seem new again. It's a joy to welcome Morricone back to the genre that brought him international exposure but the dark, brooding nature of The Hateful Eight, in stark contrast to his lusher Western works, also demonstrates that this is a versatile composer who continues to reinvent his own style, even well into his eighties.
That Quentin Tarantino finally relented and allowed a composer of Morricone's stature to draw out the emotional themes of his movie is a pleasing development. Morricone brings with him a rich legacy of film music, making him the ideal soul-mate for renowned cineaste Tarantino, and when it comes to the movie itself the score is a vital tool for elevating the tension to unbearable levels. At the same time, it's also a coherent listen away from the context of the film, and this is surely why Morricone is as revered as he is. As a musical storyteller, someone who constructs each track with a clear end result in mind and who puts remarkable levels of thought into the construction of his albums, he's peerless. Morricone doesn't just bring the music to the movies he scores; he brings the soul. The soundtrack album is available from these links at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.