Michael Kamen: Ten Moments in the History of Cinema
Each time we are forced to choose, normally, we get into trouble when the body of work of an author is vast and of quality. Choosing ONLY ten titles or ten themes by someone, or the top ten composers (ten or twenty, that is the same), is often cause for headache.
Furthermore, consider that each one has his own personal and subjective preference, and you already get the whole mess. And perhaps that is the beauty of it all, the sum of heterogeneous personal tastes make up a compact and homogenous block that shows a composer’s quality and, in turn, the heterogeneity of his work.
In Michael Kamen’s TOP TEN we find such popular works as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Die Hard, or as personal as Mr. Holland’s Opus. And it is something that shows the quality of an excellent composer such as Kamen, unique and unrepeatable.
That is the reason why, while thinking about this article, I was not certain about writing it on my own or with someone else assistance, but eventually I got into Gary Cooper’s pants to lonely accomplish this crusade, High Noon style.
How have I approached this article? I have just thought of two points. First, unavoidable, my own personal taste. What has shaped me, musically speaking, from Michael Kamen? If you write an article in this way, there must be a sentimental link connecting yourself to Kamen’s opus, moments when you lowered your defenses and completely surrendered to the musical stream leaving Michael’s baton. Kryptonite moments, to put it that way.
And second, but not least, you must be as objective as possible, within your own subjectivity, trying to be consistent in your approach, that is, choosing the top ten musical moments in Michael Kamen’s film career, ten great moments where the music of the Maestro from New York stands out on its own, contributing its bit to cinema history.
It is hard to pick ten moments (for each ten you take, you will remember another ten or twenty), but, in my case, let us say there is at least six or seven that are a must, because they are very close to my heart. They are memories that marked me as a child and as a teenager, and they will be with me till the day I die.
I will never be grateful enough for all that Kamen has given me; there are not enough words to say thanks. At least, all I can do is honor his memory with this extensive and intense tribute to the work of a genius.
Thanks Michael, thanks for everything. Thanks for keeping on enlightening my life every time I see one of your movies or listen to one of your scores. You make my world a bit better, and sorrow smaller and joy more intense.
It’s all for you, Michael.
Dedicated to all Kameners and to Michael Kamen’s family (Sandra, Sasha and Zoe).
PD: The order of election is based exclusively in a passionate/temporal criteria; i.e., the moment or time when I discovered these music gems along my life.
And special thanks you very much to Oscar Salazar and Gorka Oteiza for the translation to English.
01 Assault to the Tower (from Die Hard, 1988)
Sitting in the theater, being twelve. First movie without my parents, with a 13-year-old friend, my cover in case someone did not allow us to see this PG-13 movie.
My first contact with Kamen’s universe was a slap in the face. First, the movie left me in shock. If it is not the best, and I think it is, it is one of the best action movies in history. Spectacular, with rhythm and steady hand, incredibly filmed and narrated, with an excellent script, great visual moments and excellent acting. And be careful with Kamen, because he broke the mold. Lethal Weapon and Die Hard were a reference, perhaps two of the most representative scores in cinema history and in soundtracks.
And to pick a moment (there are several, maybe two main ones, the chosen and the battle in the roof), I keep Assault to the Tower. Spectacular. Pure Kamen.
Eight brutal great minutes of the best written action music. Kamen plays with all kind of motifs and sounds (he even uses some drums at the very beginning, as modern sound, as if a rock theme was about to start), highlighting the opening of Singing in the Rain, with an impeccable musical exposure, which did not appear 100% on screen (things of the editing). This piece alone, a work of art, justifies the whole score as a master work in the action genre.
And yes, it completely disarmed me. Great moment number 1.
02 Escape! No Escape! (from Brazil, 1985)
Brazil is one of Kamen’s best scores and, recognized by the composer himself many times in his life, perhaps his best work. And I fully agree, as it is hard to say something different.
I have always thought that it was a pity that Gilliam and Kamen did not work together again; theirs was an incredible visual-musical marriage. Both understood each other perfectly. One composed the music that the other needed, and the other provided the images that inspired such a great musical explosion of creativity, something rarely seen.
Seen on TV as a kid, I did not find it half as hilarious as when I saw it as a grownup (what a change). The forgivable youthful disappointment (partial only, as I always liked the film) was not accompanied by the musical. It came from another galaxy. What a music.
It was one of the first Kamen I purchased and, if you ask me, perhaps the one I have listened to more times, together with Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Dead Zone. It is impossible not to be in love with this score.
There are many moments to pick, here in handfuls, from the great theme for The Battle (epic origin of the future Kamen) to the many transgressions and dreams of Sam (an outstanding Jonathan Pryce), but the final track, Escape! No Escape! , which masterfully closes the movie, offers us pastoral and lyric moments in its first portion (with an initial musical explosion) combined with a moving violin solo, melancholic in tone, in the second half, with Ary Barroso’s Brazil motif as main melody.
Score and movie to be vindicated.
03 Opening Titles (from The Dead Zone, 1983)
There are lots, but lots of things to say here. Too many. So, as I already wrote a 30th anniversary special not long ago, I prefer to focus on the article.
The Dead Zone awakens in me many feelings, some of which I have already captured, and some others difficult to expose on writing. I have a total weakness for anything that has to do with this movie, period.
Walken is over the top, Cronenberg effective, King sets one of his best works and Kamen gives everything away, I would say he supplies heart and soul to the final product, a great human tragedy, when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, as the good Spock would say, a motto that John Smith’s character makes good in the final part.
I remember having watched the film on TV as a kid, after recording it in a VHS, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. I cannot put it into words, but I was fascinated when the Main Titles appeared on screen, forming the title of the film (The Dead Zone), while we see in the background images of towns and forests, with that music which began in a dark and terrifying mood, making way to the main motif, where Kamen placed his broken musical heart, full of melancholy and suffering, but also of hope.
Violins, brass and woodwinds built a wonderful and painful theme, which captures the essence of John Smith’s character. It was, with no doubt, the door that opened Kamen’s musical explosion and which was followed by all the other successes of the composer.
The Dead Zone was the beginning of Kamen’s legend in film history (not forgetting jewels such as The Next Man or Venom).
04 Overture (from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991)
What can be said that has not been already said about this awesome overture? That is it. That it is a geniality only reachable for a few, such as Kamen.
If The Dead Zone was his introduction and Lethal Weapon and Die Hard the confirmation of his quality as composer in Hollywood’s mainstream, Robin Hood was the title that carved his name in the memory of all moviegoers (and not only film music fans).
Even more, with due respect, Robin Hood was Kamen’s Star Wars. Who has not ever heard this theme? Moreover, if you love movies (just talking about movies, and not their music as a passion), how could you not know this great theme?
Both Kevin Reynolds and Kevin Costner delivered two of their best works at their respective levels, with a terrific Alan Rickman as the bad guy (not far away from his Hans in Die Hard) and where Kamen not only pulled out of thin air one of the most epic and spectacular themes ever composed in film history, but also had time for writing, together with Bryan Adams, one of the most beautiful songs too: Everything I Do (I Do It for Love).
Words are superfluous. Do not say epic, say Kamen.
05 An American Symphony (from Mr Holland’s Opus, 1995)
As in the case of The Dead Zone, I could write a thesis with a subject as Mr. Holland’s Opus. It is Kamen’s master piece, in my opinion his roundest and most mature. In fact, the American Symphony of the climax, where Kamen smartly gathers each and every one of the main motifs in the score, perfectly stringing them together, is an impressive musical collage which displays better than ever Kamen’s universe par excellence.
And it conveys Kamen’s essence, something that a distant Leonard Bersntein told the young composer in the 60’s; experience, go further, do not remain in the symphonic. And that is what he always did, go further, and perhaps An American Symphony is Kamen’s best piece to reflect that inquisitiveness.
Furthermore, the musical passion of the New Yorker is more present than ever, where touched Professor Holland (an awesome Richard Dreyfuss) attends, after years of teaching, to the symphony he has been years trying to compose, the symphony of all the lives he has assisted and taught, his students’.
The symphonic outpouring is awesome, the string of leitmotivs in the film is amazing, perfectly linked, and the wonderful notes of modern music (electric guitar and drums) set this work as one of the composer most touching, which should have fairly been his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (indeed, it should have been his Oscar).
As the good of John Lennon would say, Life is What Happens to You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans.
06 I Once Met this Beautiful Girl by the Lake (from What Dreams May Come, 1998)
A total earthquake… really… this is too much for me. Many years have passed since I last played this CD, and this summer has been the first time I passed this theme, when I resumed my love affair with this wonderful score, thanks to a very special person in my life (thanks Vane). I don’t know what does it have, it’s hard to explain, but Kamen’s central theme, based on his song Beside You from his symphonic rock band New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, composed half by Kamen and by his friend Mark Snow, completely disarms me.
My eyes begin to fill with tears, and emotions spill out. The melancholy and lyricism of this theme are from another galaxy. If I had to choose ten themes to take somewhere with me, this would be one of them. It transmits peace and serenity, makes me feel alive, but also nostalgic and melancholic (it’s a theme that defines my mood perfectly). And besides, we have Kamen masterfully playing the oboe.
When I saw the movie at the cinema (a disaster for many people, interesting to others, such as myself), I was fascinated by three things: First, the visual impact of the film, especially Robin Williams’ descent into hell looking for his wife. Second, the heartbreaking love story, full of pain and punishment (such as the loss of children). And the third … Do I need to say it? … Michael Kamen.
It’s not the only motif, but Beside You will vertebrate much of the musical material of the film, emphasizing the end, the climax, which emerges powerful and epic, full of feelings, with the whole orchestra raising the central motif, to achieve musical excellence heights.
As I said… A total earthquake.
That I’d always Be Beside You,
To Watch the Day and Night…
07 Hollywood Blvd Chase (from Lethal Weapon, 1987)
If Die Hard is a referent in the world of action, the Lethal Weapon saga is not far beyond it. Recently published in a Box Set by La-la Land Records (containing all the music in the series, including many extras), the score of each the movies always came signed by the triplet Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton and David Sanborn, although Kamen’s special touch is the most present of the three, of course.
Although I am more a Die Hard fan than Lethal Weapon fan, musically we are facing two references in action genre, that marked trends, impossible to deny (even for Kamen, with brilliant works like Last Action Hero, Company Business, Road House, Renegades or The Last Boy Scout).
Musically speaking, the series has had many great moments to select from, as the desert scene of the first movie, the car chase in the second with the famous surfboard, or the shooting at the end of the third movie, but if I have to choose one (at gunpoint), I’ll take the Hollywood Blvd Chase of the first movie.
It is an excellent and rhythmic action piece, pure adrenaline, and never a car chase had such a spectacular and brutal music like this, at least as I remember (and no, Bullit does not count, since during the persecution there’s no music, or The French Connection either, an excellent movie with a good composing job by Don Ellis, who accomplished his mission).
An orchestral tour of four and a half minutes that is magnificent, where I’m sure that some members of the orchestra must have been close to collapse, and that perfectly defines the nerve and tenacity of Kamen’s music when composing for action movies.
With music like this, it’s normal that Murtaugh said once and again that he was nearly to retire (or that Riggs would like to jump from the top of a building with a suicidal guy…). It’s forbidden to listen to this score while driving … Danger of total acceleration!
Great and fantastic Kamen.
08 Main Theme (from Band of Brothers)
As my friend Berto would say, “we hit the bone” (–translation of a Spanish saying–) But, to tell the truth… I’ve been “hitting the bone” since we started with this special.
Television never, IMHO, portrayed WWII as accurately and with so much humanity as in HBO’s Band of Brothers, a production of high quality, where all the parts are a masterful set that make this series one of the best testimonies of military history.
Performances, photography, direction, art direction, script … everything is perfect, everything is fine tuned, and all wrapped with a big quality lasso, Michael Kamen’s music. The soul of the series is simply the Main Theme.
As soon as you hear this theme you recall the whole series, it’s like when you smell a fragrance or try a dish that reminds you of something you have lived or experienced. It’s the same feeling, as it happened to the food critic in Ratatouille.
When I listen to this central theme (the main motif for the series) I cannot avoid getting excited, and feeling part of the human team of Band of Brothers. Music conveys that sense of brotherhood and camaraderie, music is something that unites us and makes us equal, and makes us one.
Band of Brothers wouldn’t have the same finishing without Kamen, no doubt about it. Kamen is like glue, uniting everything to give consistency to the whole. This theme is the anthem of the series, although it does not prevent that we break into pieces when we hear the rest of the music.
Maybe Open Range, a crepuscular western (the last work he composed) transmits that sensation of melancholy near the end of his life, but Band of Brothers was, in some way, the beginning of the Musical Requiem of his life and work, a Musical Testament of the passion, raised to the Nth power.
09 Fight on the Wing & Fight on the Wings Continue (from Die Hard 2 Die Harder, 1990)
Maybe, and just maybe, one day I choose Die Hard and another day I choose Die Harder 2. It depends. Die Harder 2, following the musical pattern of the first movie in many cases, it is not exactly like the previous one.
Let me explain myself. The first movie has much more tension than action on overall, and more comic references (Winter’s Wonderland, A Singing in the Rain and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). The second, has Sibelius and his Finland as a musical reference (by the way, nothing comic, although epic and heroic in the final section), and a lot more action than tension. Only the last thirty minutes, or maybe more, are an action musical compendium, ready to be taught in composition schools today.
The fight in the church, the fight of the luggage area, the assault team’s trap on their way to the annex, or the chase aboard snowmobiles, justify all that I said before, but the icing on the cake is the final part, with the bad guys leaving on a plane untouched, and McClane pursuing them.
The dramatic final fight in the wing of the plane, where all the villains are going to take off, including General Esperanza (Franco Nero) and Colonel Stuart (a great William Sadler), is a true Kamenian Tour de Force, one of the highlights of all action movies ever, brilliantly shot by Finnish Renny Harlin, and it’s there where the music is pure adrenaline, a time bomb about to explode. Metals are wonderful, the real stars of the cue, seasoned with strings and percussion (the end of the climax, when Bruce Willis and his lighter solve the situation, it’s a blast, an action moment to frame in a wall).
Yipi Ka Yei…
10 Training Montage (from Higlander, 1986)
Highlander is by far, one of those endearing and magical films of the 80s, quality entertainment that is hard to find on screen today. Good performances (Clancy Brown and Sean Connery are the center of the movie with their roles), with Russell Mulcahy doing an excellent job mixing all the ingredients, including a cocktail of violence and good F/X (at least at the time, but still good), and, of course, an explosive mixture, a success, the mythical Queen songs with great Michael Kamen’s score.
Kamen had to share the movie with Queen (what a problem!) and the result was a wonderful mix of songs and orchestral music, that hasn’t been properly released yet (it’s been 30 years, but looks like it will take its time).
Who doesn’t know Who Wants to Live Forever, A Kind of Magic or Princess of the Universe? Songs that marked a whole generation of moviegoers and music lovers, both group fans and good music fans, with that magical touch, the «Queen» touch.
But Kamen’s score is not behind at all; a solemn, melodic and epic central theme for our hero, MacLeod (the usually stuffy Christopher Lambert), an advance for Kamen’s best music yet to come (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, for example), a beautiful love song based on Queen’s song, but led to Kamen’s field, with many action cuts and with virulent and aggressive regrowths, emphasizing the ferocity of the sword fights of the main characters.
Maybe, and just maybe, if I had to pick a moment, it would be the Training Montage, that moment when Ramirez trains MacLeod, preparing for what will happen soon. The theme is solemn, epic and heroic, and is played slowly, picking up strength as it progresses, with the band going in crescendo, showing the improved skills MacLeod.
There Can Be Only One. And this one was Kamen.
BONUS 01 Vulcan and Venus (from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1988)
It would be unfair not to mention this score (although The Three Musketeers and this one could occupy my number ten along Training Montage from Highlander), but finally I opted for the quality of this great work, the second intervention of Kamen in Gilliam’s Universe, another absolute gem, and especially by the creative freedom that he was allowed to use…. an epic circus spectacle that is configured as a musical delicatessen.
A great central theme, full of epic and symphonic taste everywhere, and moments of great comedy (the mad Sultan’s crazy song), another big theme for the Sultan, with ethnic harmonies, and a beautiful Waltz, destined to the presence of women in the Universe of the Baron, that has its peak during Venus’ dance (a very young Uma Thurman) with Munchausen Baron, in the presence of an increasingly stung Vulcan (great Oliver Reed).
Kamen builds an exquisite piece of great symphonic depth, pure classicist abundance, that in the form of a Waltz, accompanies Terry Gilliam’s visual imagery. One of those scenes of a fantastic eighties universe, that nowadays we will certainly never see in movies again.
The film was a total box office failure, although time has put it in its rightful place (with some very funny and buffoonish moments as the trip to the moon, the final battle or the execution of the soldier played by Sting, brief cameo, in front of a great and indignant Jonathan Pryce… totally Monty Pythonesque). This film marked the end of the Kamen-Gilliam tandem (and I sincerely don’t know the reason), but this powerful combination, left in the memory of fans more than one good moment like this one.
Long Life Baron Munchausen.
BONUS 02 The Cardinal’s Couch (from The Three Musketeers, 1993)
The Three Musketeers marked the beginning of a brief but fruitful relationship of Stephen Herek and Kamen, that lasted two more films (Mr. Holland ‘s Opus, in our Top Selection, and 101 Dalmatians). Many saw The Three Musketeers as some kind of musical continuation of Kamen’s success in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (and perhaps they’re right). Another film adaptation of a great classic, a retentive and successful song (All for Love), adventures everywhere in the old-fashioned way…
But there is a big difference, in my opinion. While Robin Hood has a wonderful main theme, one of the best themes ever composed for a film, The Three Musketeers has greater thematic variety, with greater richness and depth (and I don’t argue which one is better … indeed, I don’t want to do it, because both are very close in my Kamen’s Top Ten).
Cardinal’s theme (great Tim Curry, by the way), D’ Artagnan’s theme, Milady de Winter’s theme… all with a classicism and a sense of adventure raised to the Nth degree (where Kamen incorporates the wonderful harpsichord, one of my favorite instruments).
There are many moments to choose from, the Main Title with Cardinal’s presentation (a great theme, including chorus, with a dark and sinister tone), the first sword fight , the final climax (not released in CD… when will we get a complete edition?….), the cannon shots (Cannoballs, a theme including in the official edition and which I love) … but if I have to choose one as a representative, it would be The Cardinal ‘s Couch, when our heroes steal the Cardinal’s carriage and embark on a frantic getaway, with Cardinal’s guards following them close.
Metals are powerful and heroic, as few times have been in a modern movie (soon after, another musical pattern would begin to prevail… but I’d rather not talk about it). These metals give strength and consistency to the escape, with strings accompanying them in a big musical frenzy, and setting a constant musical advance ostinato (giving musical shape to escape).
A sweeping and classical symphonism, the usual (the good one), hits us over nearly five minutes, in a memorable cut, worthy of this Top Ten plus Bonus. And it’s one of the last classical adventure films, simple but attractive.
All for One, and One for All.