“Once upon a time in America”: the music of Ennio Morricone between myth and nostalgia

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CINEMA – I thought it was an adventure, instead it was life. (Sergio Leone on Once upon a time in America)

When he told of the troubled work of his latest film (fifteen years of waiting just to get to the shooting stage, a complex implementation and an assembly burdened with cuts that – at the behest of the producer De Laurentiis – completely distorted the sense of history, imposing a merely chronological trend), an authentic cinematographic and spiritual testament, Sergio Leone every now and then he liked to quote a sentence by the writer Joseph Conrad: to exemplify that – like any river-work or world that you want to say – also Once upon a time in America it makes reality coincide with fiction, the episode and the lasting, in the four hours and more of the full version.

Based on the novel The Hoods by Harry Gray (1952), third chapter of the so-called “time trilogy” (together with Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, e down the head, 1971), the film by the inventor of the “spaghetti western” genre, revered as a master by the most representative directors of the generations following his – from Kubrick to Scorsese, from Eastwood to De Palma and Tarantino – arrives through the story of forty years of American life (from the thirties to the dawn of the seventies) to an almost unreachable epic cinema model.

A cinema that draws its lymph and inspiration from the real and at the same time goes beyond it, entering very soon the dimension of the dream, of reverie, of hypnotic hallucination, of the memory seasoned with nostalgic and abstract autobiographism, as evidenced by many iconic passages, moved homages by Leone at the seventh art in its integrity and purity (see, for example, the magnificent scene in the opium smokehouse annexed to the Chinese theater, with the memory of the origins of the cinema). In this regard, the director said: «I took stock of my life and all my experience with that film. After all, it is a biography on two levels: my personal life and my life as an American cinema spectator. After the war, I never got tired of watching movies. Cinema had become my drug. So, in Once upon a time in America, gifts appear that I had the duty to make. Like the Russian charlotte scene on the stairs. It is a tribute to Charlie Chaplin. I did not imitate his film, I did not mention a sequence shot by him. It is the simple manifestation of the love I have for him ».

Through the gaze and memory of gangster David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) – alter-ego of Leone -, tied in a double thread to the reckless lives of friends Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe) e Patsy (James Hayden), the lost America and New York of Prohibition are evoked, from the Jewish ghetto to the underworld, within a very powerful fresco that becomes for the spectator, as well as for the author, a totalizing and sublime aesthetic experience: « When the idea of ​​a new film starts in me, I am totally absorbed and I live maniacally for that idea. I eat and think of the film, I walk and think of the film, I go to the cinema and I don’t see the film but I see mine. I’ve never seen De Niro on set, but always my Noodles. I’m sure I did it with him Once upon a time there was my cinema, more than Once upon a time in America».

An immense work, in short, of not simple exegesis, in which Leone pours out his artistic universe, fielding through the insistent but non-linear use of narrative figures such as flashback and flashforward a concept of time broken and reversible: the cinema of memory and dream lives in an eternal present, “in a space that is nothing more than time”, as the filmmaker explained in dialogue with the film historian Noël Simsolo (Once upon a time there was cinema, The Assayer, 2018). “I am aware of the apparent static nature of the film,” continued Leone. «In reality, it never stops moving. But this static nature is perceived precisely because it concerns time: everything has stopped in the opium smokehouse. And it all starts from there. Everything is lost, forgotten, destroyed … And I, to make a film about memories and memory, had to find some vestiges of reality. To make my conception of myth and dream complete, I had to work on the most solid reality. Starting from this, everything descended in cascade. Time is the protagonist of the film and time is always right ».

To be able to return the emotion of the passage of time, the nostalgia of the memory, the melancholy of lost affections (friends, loves), the epic of youth, Leone commissions the soundtrack for the film to Ennio Morricone (formerly his collaborator from 1964 to 1966 for the “dollar trilogy, in Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, e down the head, 1971), making this decision so far in advance of the film’s working times that the arias that became famous all over the world could already be heard during the shooting.

An elegiac atmosphere, that evoked by the music of the maestro who passed away at the age of 91 a few days ago, rewarded for his extraordinary talent with countless international awards, including two for his career (an Oscar and a Golden Lion).

Robert De Niro (who – in addition to Once upon a time in America – worked on three other films with Morricone soundtracks: Twentieth century by Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976, Mission by Roland Joffé, 1986, and The Untouchables by Brian De Palma, 1987) defined it in an interview with “La Repubblica”: “unusual and interesting, perhaps the most suitable word is that what he had done for that type of film was a novelty. But even when he did other things you saw how versatile he was and how special his music was. What Sergio Leone managed to do was to compose something really new for that type of production. When Ennio made music for Mission e Once upon a time in America I thought how wonderful it was. He was such a particular musician. […] Every now and then, when I happen to hear them, I find myself fascinated and dragged by his music. He was a very special musician, loved here in America as in Italy ».

And if, on a purely figurative level, Leone admitted to having been influenced for his film by the painting of Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh and Norman Rockwell (no longer that of Max Ernst or Giorgio De Chirico, as in The good, the bad and the ugly), on the musical level he showed that he had, in the same way, very precise ideas: «The whole film is the opium dream of Noodles through which I dream of the ghosts of cinema and the American myth. Given the coexistence of all these feelings, I asked Ennio Morricone for a different job than usual. We started with a song of the time, Amapola. Then I wanted to add some specific passages: God Bless America in Irving Berlin, Night and Day by Cole Porter e Summertime by George Gershwin. In addition to the original Morricone music and the great melodies of the past, I added something of today, Yesterday by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, in order to touch on some essential points: the nostalgia of a world, the lucidity of this nostalgia in my head, and perhaps in reality … It applies to my imagination ».

Again for that form of extreme identification that leads to superimposing the personality and existence of Sergio Leone with those fictitious ones of Noodles, his cinematographic alter-ego, we can ultimately affirm that behind the tormented love that the character played by De Niro rehearses for aspiring dancer and actress Deborah Gelly (Elizabeth McGovern) the director’s equally intense one is hidden for his job: “In jail – Noodles tells Deborah – you had to forget about the world outside, you had to forget it so as not to go crazy, but two things I couldn’t get out of my mind: before it was Dominick when before dying he said “I slipped”. And the other was you. You who read the Song of Canticles to me, remember? Nobody will ever love you like I loved you. “

Once upon a time in America it is available for free streaming on the RaiMovie platform.

Directed by: Sergio Leone
Assistant director: Fabrizio Sergenti Castellani, Luca Morsella
Origin: Italy-Usa, 1984, 227 ‘

Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Tuesday Weld, Burt Young, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Richard Bright, James Hayden, William Forsyth, Mario Brega, Darlanne Fluegel, Jennifer Connelly

Subject: from the novel The Hoods by Harry Gray (1952)
Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Franco Arcalli, Leo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Franco Ferrini, Enrico Medioli
Director of photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Editing: Nino Baragli
Scenography: Carlo Simi, Giovanni Natalucci, James Singelis
Furniture: Bruno Cesari
Costumes: Gabriella Pescucci, Richard Bruno
Effects: Louis Craig, Gabe Videla, Les Productions de l’Intrigue Inc., Corridori G&A Cinematografica
Sound: Jean-Pierre Ruh
Assistant director: Fabrizio Sergenti Castellani, Luca Morsella
Produzione: The Ladd Company, Embassy International Pictures, Pso International, Rafran Cinematografica, Wba International Release
Distribution: Titanus (1984)


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