Giro Giro Tondo! A Primer on Italian Film Soundtracks

To give modern film composers the same kind of freedom that Ennio Morricone had in his heyday would be unthinkable. Sergio Leone, famous for directing classic westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has said that Morricone often composed music for characters before their scripts were even written. Imagine a Marvel film composer getting the same sort of leeway!

Morricone is a legend who is an exemption to the rule, of course. However, his composing process is indicative of the kind of power that soundtracks have on movies in the Italian film industry. From gory giallo films to erotic dramas, the music in the film is more than just a setup for the scene, but rather an equal to the visuals (sometimes being better than the film itself!)

Italy itself has had a long history in film. Cinecitta Studios, built in 1937, is the largest film in Europe. It hosts the yearly Venice film festival and is home to directors like Fellini and Bava and Leone. It is one of Italy’s biggest tourism draws and is the subject of many lengthy nonfiction works that are worthy of reading.

The strange thing, however, is that there is nothing particularly unique about Italy’s film industry, at least in the time period focused on in this piece, the late 1960s to the late 1970s. They were one of many countries in Europe with an established film scene, and despite their many historical accolades, it can be argued that Italian cinema faced a lot of strong competition from other countries during this period. There were certainly standout movements and directors and while it is a country whose cinema is very much worth a deeper dive, so too are the filmographies of those in other countries like France, Germany or Spain. Perhaps it is a positive that there are so many countries from this region with such a wealth of great cinema!

But while many countries boast their own composers who deserve a second look (like French artists Michel Legrand and Francis Lai, for example,) Italy is rather unique in its uniformity of sound. When putting on Italian film music, one might hear a pop melody wrapped in a heavenly orchestral sound, or some cheesy funk straight out of the KPM library, or even ventures into tension and dissonance. At the same time, one can certainly count on lush string arrangements, flittering harpsichord and drums that are ripe for sampling.

Even if it wasn’t really created for enjoyment without the film’s accompaniment, there are many cases where the soundtrack is worth listening to on its own. Italian film composers seemed to be at the top of their game in this period, and the more reissues that are released, the more hidden gems there are to be discovered.

Below are five records that offer as a primer into this dreamy, strange universe. Be warned, some of these covers are NSFW.

Piero Piccioni - Camille 2000. Piccioni’s 1969 score makes for one of the most complete albums that can be found in this genre. There are a couple of uptempo numbers here and there, but the highlights are the loungey slow burners that are peppered throughout. One of the best things about Italian film soundtracks are the string arrangements, and the analog production that gives them a warmth that isn’t found on more modern works. Camille 2000 has it in spades, especially on the title track or the appropriately named “Easy Lovers.”

Ultimately the thing that I believe stops most from venturing into the album (and thus, many Italian film soundtracks) is the movie itself. It’s depicted as a sultry drama rife with sexual tension, and the original cover behind this reissue parallels the movie in putting eroticism at the forefront (NSFW), in line with the burgeoning “sexual revolution” of the time. 

But it does this in a manner that is heavily objectifying and poorly aged. Sure, there is something to be said in utilizing this tension to one’s advantage when making a film, but many Italian films like Camille 2000 give the impression that it is merely an exploitation of women’s bodies, just to get people to watch. The trailer for this film reflects this in a very NSFW manner. (That exploitation certainly wasn’t lost on many. The famed Roger Ebert offered up a one-star review of the film upon its 1969 release, calling it a movie about “heavy breathing.”)

Thus the image one gets when listening is not of heavenly breezes or autumnal trees, but of hairy boning sessions. It’s such a shame, because the soundtrack for Camille 2000 makes for a breezy summer day of an album. It’s beautiful, occasionally funky, and I suppose still a bit sexy, in a Gainsbourg-like fashion. You can keep the filth out of your mind fairly easily when you’re listening, though.

Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai - Metti una sera a cena. This is another soundtrack that suffers from the “hot woman on cover” syndrome, though at least it’s just a pose and not something more scandalous. (Though the film itself certainly can be.) Morricone himself needs no introduction, but he’s helped out here by protege Bruno Nicolai, who provides the conducting.

Morricone’s strength is in the melodies he writes, and the title track is one of his best. It starts out with this slow wah-wah guitar before exploding alongside frequent collaborating vocalist Edda Dell’orso’s soaring vocals, as if being lifted up to any and all forms of heaven. The rest of the soundtrack doesn’t lift off like that song does, but takes a step back to revel in its dreamy soundscapes. Only occasionally will the album come through with something to dance to, like the beat music on “Alla luce del giorno.”

Morricone has many scores that could fit on this list, but I choose this one mainly because it sees the composer in his most laidback element, and thus serves as a solid entry point into his vast back catalogue apart from his Spaghetti Western scores. Metti una sera a cena is probably not a film worth watching but it is an album worth setting a calm morning to   

Gianni Ferrio - La morte accarezza a mezzanote. This is a soundtrack to a giallo film, about a murderer who bludgeons people with a spiked metal glove. It’s one of the sillier films of its genre (which is saying a lot!) but the soundtrack accentuates the film with a gorgeous orchestral backing and occasional beat rhythms. Popular singer Mina (who is worth checking out in her own right) contributes vocals to the opening track “Valentina”, which is then broken down into six different songs of various instrumentation. Many soundtracks of this period will repeat their melodies ad nauseum (given that it’s meant for the film and not for listening on its own) but putting all six tracks together makes the listening experience more like a suite than simply repetition.

Elsewhere we get tense harpsichord offerings like on “Nel giardino abbandonato” and some funky R&B on “Oliver rhythm and blues.” Things get cheesy in spots, but you should’ve known that already. It’s simply part of the charm.

Bruno Nicolai - La dama rossa uccide sette volte. Nicolai is best known for his collaborations with Morricone, but he is certainly a capable composer on his own. La dama is another giallo film and as such, is coupled with a tense and dissonant score. Check out the whirling strings on “Incubo ed aggressione” or the strange chord progression on “Ufficio vuoto” for an example.

Nicolai couples this with a gorgeous lead melody interspersed with bits of beauty, my favorite being “In automobile”. In just over a minute, Nicolai puts together a sweeping piano melody with intertwining harpsichord and a lush string backing. It’s expanded on by the penultimate track “Fine di un incubo”, but I’m amazed that such a powerful composition can be captured in such a short length. Moments like that are found all throughout this soundtrack.

Stelvio Cipriani - Anonimo veneziano. If you’ve gotten through the above soundtracks up to this point, you will know that the soundtracks tend to repeat themselves on occasion. This is not the fault of the composers themselves; many films are prone to do this, and the soundtrack wasn’t written to be listened to on its own anyway. Oftentimes, the main theme will be sprinkled into multiple tracks, stashed away in some alternative instrumentation or even a different key.

Anonimo veneziano is an extreme example. Of the album’s 19 tracks, 11 use the exact same melody. No change in key, and very little change in rhythm. Instead, Cipriani differentiates the songs by dressing up the melody in all sorts of moods and instrumentation. There’s the main one, the brusque and pizzicato one, the one with a piano playing the melody instead of a harpsichord, the one in ¾ time, and the one in 6/8, just to name a few.

Regardless, I still recommend a listen to this soundtrack for two main reasons. The first is that the main theme itself is so good that it’s almost worth hearing eleven times. It’s an autumnal song that sounds like wistful nostalgia and romance, and nearly outshines the great Morricone in capturing the essence of a beautiful Italian film theme.

The second is that the instrumentation and production are top-notch. Each song is backed by this seemingly gargantuan string arrangement that pillows the sharp harpsichords and reverberating piano. The drums, when they appear, boom in the way that old soul records do. It’s all recorded in this warm, analog production style that really pleases the ear in a way that a cleaner recording couldn’t. The overall thematic repetition is unfortunately too much to bear for a full runthrough most of the time, but out of that context, the songs themselves are an absolute treat to listen to.

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