Sound on the Screen - The Music of Piero Piccioni
Piero Piccioni is a name that you can add to a long list of Italian composers who turned their attention to the world of cinema in the 1950’s and 60’s, and like many of them he was both talented and prolific. He is credited with creating over 300 scores for a wide range of films that spanned nearly every genre imaginable, from comedy to steamy B-movies, as well as dramas from the likes of Luchino Visconti, Bernardo Bertolucci and Francesco Rosi.
In more recent years, Piccioni's music has also seen somewhat of a revival online, where some of his scores have racked up millions of views on YouTube and Spotify. This is especially the case for some of the lesser known B-movies that he worked on during the 70's, some of which can be difficult to track down even in the age of online streaming. So when it comes to listening, it's easy to find a huge amount of Piccioni's work, but where do you look when it comes to watching some of those films? The Criterion Channel's online streaming service is a good place to start.
Some of the events from the composer's life read a bit like a filmscript. Piccioni started out as a jazz musician in the 1930’s and then took up a career as a lawyer before making his working acquaintance with cinema in the early 50’s. In 1953 his name then became the source of scandal when he was accused in a murder case which gained national attention. He was later acquitted following an alibi from actress and reported lover Alida Valli, who had starred in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) just a few years before, and would appear in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) some years later. The case was later abandoned under mysterious circumstances and Piccioni went on to continue his work, writing the music for a range of films from different corners of Italian cinema.
Some of the most critically acclaimed films that he worked on came during the early 1960’s. First there was Mauro Bolognini’s Il Bel Antonio (1960) starring Marecllo Mastroianni and Claudio Cardinale, followed by Bernardo Bertolucci’s debut film La Commare Secca (1962). Both films were written by Pier Paolo Pasolini and both are good places to start when it comes to Piccioni's filmography. La Commare Secca is often compared to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) for its style of storytelling, and Piccioni's score is a standout presence throughout, full of suspense one minute, and dreamy the next.
Next came three films from Francesco Rosi, a director who Piccioni would work with consistently during his career - Salvatore Giuliano (1962), Hands Over The City (1963) and The Moment of Truth (1965). It's in Rosi's films that you can find some of Piccioni's most tense and serious scores. The music for Salvatore Giuliano is a good example, and Hands Over The City includes a particularly brooding sound which perfectly conveys the corruption lurking beneath the housing estates of Naples. In comparison, the soundtrack for The Moment of Truth is used sparingly, but it's arguably Rosi's most captivating film, and certainly his most visceral.
By the end of 1965 Piccioni had also provided an iconic soundtrack to Elio Petri’s La Decima Vittima, a futuristic fantasy starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, which is classically 60's at the same time. The film is based on a short story by Robert Sheckley, as citizens across the world enter a thrilling bloodbath sport where they are nominated to hunt, or be hunted. It is also said to have been a big influence on Mike Myers when writing the Austin Powers films, and it doesn't take long to see why.
All six of these films are well worth watching and almost all of them (with the exception of Il Bel Antonio) are currently available to watch on the Criterion Channel. The streaming service offers a 14 day free trial and it's now available outside of the USA and Canada, and if you have any trouble accessing it then you should be able to get around that by using a VPN. Just click here to find out which films they are currently showing.
On the other hand, you might want to track down some of the less acclaimed or more obscure titles from Piccioni's filmography. Since his death in 2004, a large number of his scores have been uploaded online and some have proven to be popular hits on YouTube. One of the best examples is his score for Radley Metzger’s Camillee 2000 (1969), which currently has over 13 million views. Interestingly, the film later made its way onto Roger Ebert's most hated films list, and with a bit of work you can find a free stream online. The score glides between smooth and moodier sounds for around 60 minutes and you can give it a listen via the video below.
From here YouTube algorithms can lead you to plenty of other Piccioni scores which in turn can introduce you to a whole host of different films. This can even be an interesting way to choose which film you want to watch next, by listening first and then seeing where your ears take you. You may come across one of the many Alberto Sordi comedies or some of the obscure B-movies and documentaries that he worked on in the 70's. You might also stumble upon Piero Zuffi's Colpo Rovente (1970), an early example of the Italian Poliziotteschi genre, or Folco Quilici's hard to find documentary Il Dio Sotto La Pelle (1974).
The list of films is almost never-ending and the same can be said for many other Italian film composers from the same era. Piero Umiliani, Armando Trovajoli, Stelvio Cipriani, Guido and Maurizio De Angelis are just a few of them, not to mention Morricone and many more. The output of these composers was quite incredible, as was the range of films that they worked on. If you search for their names on YouTube or Spotify can soon find yourself in a world of easy listening, big band ensembles and funk-filled instrumentals. You might also discover a few films to watch along the way.
See below for our very own playlist to take a dive into the music of Piero Piccioni:
By Alex Escott