Last year, we put together a bracket and asked readers to identify the greatest film composer of all time. It’s stunning to think that in this year alone, all three of our finalists contributed music to blockbusters. John Williams, the winner of that poll, scored Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Phillip Glass contributed to the much-maligned Fantastic Four; and, in perhaps the most surprising of the three, Ennio Morricone leads the way on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Yes, the idea of the heady, thrilling Glass composing pieces for the shlocky, stunted comic book movie is a bit of a shock, but we’re talking about the absolute icon of Western soundtracks returning to the saloon for the first time in about 40 years. And, despite the time off, he brushes the dust off his chaps masterfully, making for a haunting score that hints creepily at the film’s violent depths.
Tarantino had used Morricone’s music in multiple films prior to Hateful Eight, but always previously used compositions, recycling bits of inspiration and fashioning them into new moments (as his general wont). He even got the 87-year-old Italian to contribute a new song to Django Unchained. Morricone must’ve found the connection fruitful, as he agreed to contribute previously unheard music to the director’s latest. It took some trust for Tarantino as well; notorious for utilizing songs with ready-made cultural cache, turning his soundtrack over to a composer was a bold move. The pairing pays dividends, Morricone’s score echoing classic tropes (Bernard Herrmann’s paranoiac string dives, John Williams’ menacing low-end linger, his own staccato vocal punctuations) while also feeling entirely fresh.
It’s been widely noted that the music is patched together partially from bits of an unused score to The Thing, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from just listening to the soundtrack. As it turns out, the two films have their share of similarities: A group of rugged individuals are trapped in a small space in an icy environment, no one is quite who they seem, and death and danger linger constantly. As such, the fusion is seamless. The lithe, dark winds of “L’Ultima Diligenze di Red Rock” portend trouble deftly, no matter if it’s of the alien or gunslinger variety. The thrumming bass of “Neve” threatens to break at any second, as violins flash into sight only to dip back away, keeping you just off-kilter. The music box-like tinkle of xylophone driving “La Musica Prima del Massacro” work on typical horror conventions of upsetting something that would otherwise sound innocent, thanks to more of that insistent low-end sitting just underneath.
As might be expected from any Tarantino project, though, that slow tension can’t last forever; there will be flashes of violence. On “Sei Cavalli”, bursts of oboe cut through the fanfare and swirling strings. On the appropriately titled “Sangue e Neve”, xylophone notes drop like blood into the cold layer of snow replicated by layers of eerie violin. This is only amped in the following “L’Inferno Bianco”, where fractured orchestral lines start and stop almost at random.
Elsewhere, Morricone turns in a vibrant theme on “La Lettera Di Lincoln”, a lush landscape over which Walton Goggins’ Mannix reads the letter from Abraham Lincoln sent to Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren. The soundtrack also features three songs contributed by the White Stripes, Roy Orbison, and David Hess. Jack White’s voice and the honky-tonk piano of “Apple Blossom” make for a particular highlight; “Lots of girls walk around in tears/ But that’s not for you,” he sings, the track’s sepia tones linking to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s turn as Daisy Domergue, the spitfire at the center of the plot. When White sings about taking care of her “troubles,” Tarantino wields the barroom stomp with a smirk, feeding that push-pull tension directly into the stream that Morricone built so meticulously.
All that said, this particular soundtrack packaging does stunt its own flow substantially, giving over a good deal of time to extended passages of dialog just when Morricone’s score is building dramatic tension. While it’s true that the film is driven by speeches and dialog — the claustrophobia of the inn in which the eight are stuck growing tighter and tighter with each confrontational sentence — dropping two and a half minutes of dialog between tracks on a record is a significant commitment. Diehard Tarantino fans may be interested in re-listening to Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Goggins, and Jackson dig into each other’s wounds and investigate racial politics while others may choose to skip those tracks to create a stand-alone listen.
But the simple action of un-selecting a portion of the soundtrack from a playlist isn’t much of a complaint. And, sticking exclusively to Morricone’s compositions would mean missing out on Jason Leigh’s charming performance of Australian folk ballad “Jim Jones at Botany Bay”. Much like the soundtrack as a whole and the film, she starts and stops, looping a dark, lilting guitar line until it threatens to break apart, interrupted by an irate Russell, only to return to inevitable horror. “That’s kind of pretty. Does it got another verse to it?” he asks. And indeed it does: “You’ll be dead behind me, John, when I get to Mexico,” she sings, twisting the traditional song to her own violent purposes.
Essential Tracks: “L’Ultima Diligenze di Red Rock”, “Sangue e Neve”, and “La Lettera Di Lincoln”