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Morricone: Once Upon a Time in America

Morricone: Once Upon a Time in America Soundtrack Deborah’s Theme – Amapola (sheet music available in our Library)

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Once Upon a Time in America (Italian: C’era una volta in America) is a 1984 epic crime drama film co-written and directed by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone and starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. The film is an Italian–American venture produced by The Ladd Company, Embassy International Pictures, PSO Enterprises, and Rafran Cinematografica, and distributed by Warner Bros. Based on Harry Grey‘s novel The Hoods, it chronicles the lives of best friends David “Noodles” Aaronson and Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz as they lead a group of Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence as Jewish gangsters in New York City‘s world of organized crime.

The film explores themes of childhood friendships, love, lust, greed, betrayal, loss, broken relationships, together with the rise of mobsters in American society.

It was the final film directed by Leone before his death five years later, and the first feature film he had directed in 13 years. It is also the third film of Leone’s Once Upon a Time Trilogy, which includes Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Duck, You Sucker! (1971).The cinematography was by Tonino Delli Colli, and the film score by Ennio Morricone. Leone originally envisaged two three-hour films, then a single 269-minute (4 hours and 29 minutes) version, but was convinced by distributors to shorten it to 229 minutes (3 hours and 49 minutes).

The American distributors, The Ladd Company, further shortened it to 139 minutes, and rearranged the scenes into chronological order, without Leone’s involvement. The shortened version was a critical and commercial flop in the United States, and critics who had seen both versions harshly condemned the changes that were made. The original “European cut” has remained a critical favorite and frequently appears in lists of the greatest gangster films of all time.

Music

The musical score was composed by Leone’s longtime collaborator Ennio Morricone. “Deborah’s Theme” was written for another film in the 1970s but was rejected. The score is also notable for Morricone’s incorporation of the music of Gheorghe Zamfir, who plays a ‘s pan flute. Zamfir’s flute music was used to similar effect in Peter Weir‘s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Morricone also collaborated with vocalist Edda Dell’Orso on the score.

Once Upon a Time in America
Soundtrack album by Ennio Morricone
Released1 June 1984
17 October 1995 (Special Edition)
RecordedDecember 1983
StudioForum Studios, Rome
GenreContemporary classical
LabelMercury Records
ProducerEnnio Morricone

Besides the original music, the film used source music, including:

  • God Bless America” (written by Irving Berlin, performed by Kate Smith – 1943) – Plays over the opening credits from a radio in Eve’s bedroom and briefly at the film’s ending.
  • Yesterday” (written by Lennon–McCartney – 1965) – A Muzak version of this piece plays when Noodles first returns to New York in 1968, examining himself in a train station mirror. An instrumental version of the song also plays briefly during the dialogue scene between Noodles and “Bailey” towards the end of the film.
  • Summertime” (written by George Gershwin – 1935) An instrumental version of the aria from the opera Porgy and Bess is playing softly in the background as Noodles, just before leaving, explains to “Secretary Bailey” why he could never kill his friend.
  • Amapola” (written by Joseph Lacalle, American lyrics by Albert Gamse – 1923) – Originally an opera piece, several instrumental versions of this song were played during the film; a jazzy version, which was played on the gramophone danced to by young Deborah in 1918; a similar version played by Fat Moe’s jazz band in the speakeasy in 1930; and a string version, during Noodles’ date with Deborah. Both versions are available on the soundtrack.
  • La gazza ladra” overture (Gioachino Rossini – 1817) – Used during the baby-switching scene in the hospital.
  • Night and Day” (written and sung by Cole Porter – 1932) – Played by a jazz band during the beach scene before the beachgoers receive word of Prohibition’s repeal, and during the party at the house of “Secretary Bailey” in 1968.
  • St. James Infirmary Blues” is used during the Prohibition “funeral” at the gang’s speakeasy.

A soundtrack album was released in 1984 by Mercury Records. This was followed by a special-edition release in 1995, featuring four additional tracks.