The music in Once Upon a Time in America plays a important role in keeping with the general atmosphere of melancholy.

The shooting script was full of explicit references to musical themes. But Sergio Leone had strong views about the particular melodies he wanted, which owed nothing to Harry Grey and a great deal to his own biography: ‘I asked for a different kind of score from Ennio Morricone this time. We began with a song of the period -“Amapola”. And I wanted to add to this some very precise musical themes: “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin, “Night and Day” by Cole Porter, “Summertime” by Gershwin. In addition to the original score by Morricone, and these “mythic” melodies to conjure up an epoch, I added something from today: “Yesterday” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I chose these … because they were such a lucid form of nostalgia in my head and maybe in reality, because for me they were touching base.’

Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ had been written in 1918 to celebrate the end of the First World War, but it did not become a public anthem until Armistice Day in 1938, when Kate Smith’s live version was recorded. Thus, strictly speaking, associating it with celebrations at the end of Prohibition in December 1933 was a slight anachronism. But the song was another immigrant’s fairy-tale, and Leone wanted the irony of its use in this context. ‘Yesterday’, recorded by the Beatles in 1965, subsequently the most ‘covered’ song in history, was called upon to provide a bridge to the first 1968 sequence, albeit rearranged as muzak. It was to be reprised as if played at the Long Island party, during Noodles’ climactic discussion with Senator Bailey.

Leone had started discussing the music for Once Upon a Time in America immediately after completing Giù la testa, and the score was more or less complete by 1975-6, seven years before a foot of film was shot, which must be a record. Ever since Leone came to Morricone with the ready-made deguello theme for Fistful of Dollars, the composer had been very sensitive about starting with a piece of music found by someone else. On this occasion, though, Carla Leone confirms that ‘“Amapola” was chosen by Sergio’. Originally a Spanish tune by Joseph M. La Calle, it had been given English lyrics by Albert Gamse and become one of the greatest hits of 1924. A 1930s recorded version had been arranged by Jimmy Dorsey. Leone may have been reminded of it in 1971 when he heard the soundtrack of Carnal Knowledge, where Jules Feiffer’s script called for ‘dance music of the forties’ in the opening sequences, and director Mike Nichols selected a version of ‘Amapola’ rearranged by Al Dubin and Harry Warren. In 1989, Morricone reflected, ‘I think Leone’s choice was on this occasion justified. The film needed historical reference-points, whether this one or other well-known pieces, all corresponding to precise dates or events.’66 (After the film was released, ‘Amapola’ re-entered the pop operatic repertory; it reached a sort of apotheosis in the final medley sung by the ‘Three Tenors’ at the Baths of Caracalla in July 1990.)

‘Amapola’ was to be heard first, in a 1924-style arrangement, on Deborah’s wind-up gramophone; later, in an over-lush string arrangement, played by the seaside restaurant orchestra during Noodles’ big night out. The tune was also to be woven into Morricone’s ‘Deborah’s Theme’ – transposed from A to E major – as if the two had blended in Noodles’ memory. The ‘found music’ tended to correspond to real moments in the narrative, with its source shown on screen. As did ‘Cockeye’s Song’, played on the pipes of Pan as the children strut their stuff around Delancey Street, and superimposed by Morricone on Hebraic themes to evoke the ethnic community in which they grew up. This was a development of the ‘cross-referencing’ of Leone’s earlier films. As Morricone recalls: ‘The musical construction arose from our conscious mixture of two musics – some from the musical reality of a given epoch, some specially composed. To illustrate the 1920s and 1930s, for example, I carefully kept the orchestration of the period, so that the audience could immediately identify the historical time when the action takes place. Where the original themes were concerned, they had to evoke less palpable things – such as the passage of time, or particular emotions such as nostalgia, love or joy.’

Instead of using the score to beef up big action sequences, or to provide ironic punctuation to the image, for Once Upon a Time in America it would have a quasi-religious feel to it – as if calling Noodles back to his distant past. It had a traditionally melodic feel, in more mainstream arrangements usually in the key of E. As Leone was to put it, ‘This time the emotions were so sharply defined, so strong and so romantic, that we agreed the music ought to be less emphatic than usual … it ought to come from a long way away.’ He opted for the pipes of Pan ‘because Gheorghe Zamfir, the great Romanian concert performer, had enchanted me, and because the pipes are the most haunting of instruments – like a human voice and like a whistle’. A piece which Leone almost turned down in its early stages, fearing a resemblance to the Once Upon a Time in the West theme, became ‘Deborah’s Theme’. Leone was to remember that ‘this love theme was, I think, originally composed for a Zeffirelli film but was never used’, and its selection continued his time-honoured tradition (going back to Fistful days) of re-evaluating Morricone music that other directors had earlier rejected – and then, when the theme proved to be a success, telling all and sundry how clever he had been to spot its potential.

The theme consists of a series of short, hesitant musical phrases, with a few beats of silence between them: each time they return, the phrases arc enriched with new embellishments, until the climax when the soprano voice of Edda Dell’Orso is introduced. It is a direct musical expression of Noodles’ frustrated desire, compounded by moments from ‘Amapola’. But the human voice, scored as another musical instrument, was much less in evidence in Once Upon a Time in America than in the previous two Leone films. Morricone explains: ‘There is a reason why I used less of Edda dell’Orso’s voice in this particular score . . . and it was right not to use it in the childhood scenes. The voice seemed perfect for moments which lament the passing of childhood, to lead the audience to think about times past – the thirty lost years of Noodles.’ One such moment was the very last image of the film, when the main title theme was repeated, with soprano harmony, as Noodles inhales the smoke of an opium pipe, lies on his back and, finally, smiles. Such music, said Morricone, ‘comes into the film when the camera looks into the eyes of the character. The theme then singles out what he is thinking at that moment, what is going on inside.’The overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie, another piece of ‘found’ music, which accompanies the baby-switching sequence, was selected by Carla Leone, as were some of the jazz inserts played in Fat Moe’s speakeasy. For the ‘Prohibition Dirge’, a stately New Orleans funeral march which turns into hot jazz as the party gets into full swing, Morricone followed the script by providing an arrangement in the mid-1930s style of Louis Armstrong.

The main themes were all composed by 1976, ready for refining and recording when at last the schedule was finalized: Leone intended to play the music on the set ‘with a few instruments, not necessarily the full orchestra’ – to create the right atmosphere, focus concentration and ‘to help the chief camera operator find the softness necessary to make tracking shots, as if he was playing a violin’. That was the plan, anyway. Final revisions would take just one month, and recording another. But, as Morricone emphasizes, ‘Sergio and I always think through our work to the very end, without ever declaring ourselves satisfied’. And Leone would keep having second thoughts: ‘Every so often, Sergio, when the music was already written, would phone me and say, “Listen, let’s have a quick meeting – because I’m beginning to have doubts about that theme for Deborah.” Then he would listen to it, and calm down again. Because he still liked it, after all. This went on about every three months … And for the scriptwriters it seemed sometimes as if everything would become a crisis, and they would have to start doing everything all over again. With me, however, he just seemed to want his judgement confirmed every now and again.’

SOURCE: Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone : something to do with death