A friend of mine recently said that one of his favorite songs by composer John Williams is the main title of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He was surprised when I told him, “Actually, Michael Kamen did the music for that movie.” My friend didn’t believe me at first, even though he knows I’m a serious movie buff. So he looked it up on IMDb, and sure enough Kamen’s name came up as the composer of that film. He didn’t understand why he had never heard of that composer before. That inspired me to write this article because I hate for a great musician to go unnoticed.
Too few people know about Michael Kamen and his large body of work. He should be synonymous with superb action-movie music, having scored the first three Die Hard films, all of the Lethal Weapon films, and even the first X-Men. He died in 2003 at the far-too-young age of 55. I’m going to celebrate his incredible work and show you why he is the best film composer you’ve probably never heard of before.
The first memorable film that Kamen scored was Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in 1985. I’ve only seen that movie once, and I don’t plan on seeing it again. I had heard it’s a brilliant dark comedy with a unique take on a dystopian future. I’m sure that’s true, but I just found it to be thoroughly unpleasant. It has some intriguing setups and payoffs (such as the woman who gets plastic surgery that turns out to be lethal), but the dream sequences are off-putting, the gags are more frustrating than funny, and the characters seem constantly oblivious to or confused by everything around them. Maybe that’s all part of the movie’s appeal to other people, but none of it really worked for me. At least the music is great, though. I have to admit that the ethereal music during Sam Lowry’s dreams is hypnotizing, and I’ve never heard anything that put me into a dreamlike mood like Kamen’s music in those scenes.
In my research for this article, I was surprised to learn that Kamen did the soundtrack for the original Highlander film. Yes, there is actually a lot of other music in Highlander besides Queen’s famous songs. A great example is when Sean Connery (I can never remember the dozen or so names and titles his character has) is helping Connor MacLeod become an expert swordsman. That whole sequence has an epic feel to it thanks to the superb score. Other musical highlights include the first and last swordfights, and Connor’s somber farewell to his Scottish wife. The music sucks you into the story as it weaves the past and present together.
Have you ever noticed that the soundtracks of Licence to Kill, Road House, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard all have a similar feel to them? Now you know why. They were all done by Kamen. Well, I should note that he co-orchestrated the scores for the Lethal Weapon films with Eric Clapton and David Sanborn, but you get the point. He was extremely busy in the late-‘80s producing one memorable soundtrack after another. If you’ve ever read Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese, you know that Road House is the ultimate guilty pleasure for testosterone junkies, and I attribute a lot of that to Kamen’s all-out soundtrack. I mean, he takes standard fight scenes and turns them into brutal clashes just by the way he punctuates the action.
Licence to Kill has a surprisingly low-key soundtrack for most of the film, but the final chase scene involving the semi-trucks is my favorite chase scene in the James Bond franchise. And Kamen highlights the excitement perfectly.
Honestly, I only saw Lethal Weapon once, so I don’t have much to say about it. I’m more familiar with the parody Loaded Weapon 1 than with the film it’s a parody of. So I’ll focus on Die Hard. That movie’s music isn’t usually talked about. Instead, it’s praised for its incredible action, pacing, performances, and editing. But I recommend that the next time you watch that movie you pay attention to the music. I especially enjoy the quieter moments. The scenes of the terrorists taking over the Nakatomi Plaza take on a methodical and sinister feel with the help of Kamen’s subdued soundtrack. Plus, when John McClane crawls through the air duct and comes close to being caught, the music has you on the edge of your seat. And, of course, the gunfights are always ratcheted up several notches when Kamen’s heart-pumping score hits its stride. It’s all very well done.
His Two Best
Kamen saved his best work for 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and 1993’s The Three Musketeers. Coincidentally, both of those films have a popular single by Bryan Adams: “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)” and “All for One.” Pretty much everyone is familiar with the opening theme of Robin Hood. It’s so legendary and sweeping – there are very few tunes that reach the heights that this music achieves. I can see why my friend got it confused with John Williams’ work. It starts out much like the main title theme from Superman: The Movie. First, there are just a few horns playing some low notes, then a few strings join in until suddenly an orchestra explodes with a gorgeous symphony. The rest of the soundtrack is great, too, but it’s just impossible to top the power of that musical entrance.
The Three Musketeers (1993) is often overlooked as a great piece of entertainment. It has a healthy balance of comedy, action, romance, and drama, plus a heaping serving of Tim Curry acting. And it has a score that captures the excitement and fun of the story. Listen to this music and try and tell me you’re not put in an adventurous mood.
Other Impressive Work
There are so many other great soundtracks Kamen composed over the years. I’ll list a few of the better ones:
Mr. Holland’s Opus – I already talked about my feelings on this movie in the article Battle of the Message Movies: Mr. Holland’s Opus vs. Forrest Gump. Check it out. Kamen’s titular theme is the highlight of the film.
The Iron Giant – Before director Brad Bird met Michael Giacchino, he already had an amazing composer to bring this classic film to life.
Frequency – The fact that this movie has largely gone unnoticed is a crime because it deserves so much praise. The music is fittingly somber for the most part, though it does have some really exciting moments.
X-Men – Each of the X-Men films so far, including the prequels, has had a different composer. It’s pretty cool that Kamen got to start things off right with a solid, if not spectacular, soundtrack for the first film in the series.
The next time you see a great ‘80s action film or any of the other films listed in this article, remember that a great musician named Michael Kamen helped bring it to you. Hopefully now he’s one of the best film composers you have heard of.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.