I love Die Hard. It’s practically flawless as an action movie. But I have to ask, does Die Hard have a good soundtrack? Is any of its music particularly memorable, melodic, or meaningful? No, it’s just kind of there. I would say that the soundtrack is neither good nor bad. It’s serviceable.
A Great Film Lacking Great Music
There are few (if any) catchy melodies to grab onto. The music seems to exist solely to reinforce the action taking place on screen. Is that a problem, you might ask? It seems like it shouldn’t be. But many great films have music that is inextricably linked to them. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kung Fu Panda, The Rocketeer, Back to the Future, and The Fugitive all have songs that I could hum right now even if I haven’t watched them in years. But even right after watching Die Hard, I’ve forgotten most of its musical cues. I would definitely put Die Hard in the ranks of those other films in terms of its story, characters, and action, but its music can’t compete with them. Can you remember the music that plays when John McClane is about to jump off the high-rise building? It’s an intense scene, but the music is flying at you so fast that it’s hard to remember anything specific about it.
Compare that to the climax of Back to the Future where Marty and Doc are struggling against the odds to get a bolt of lightning to strike the DeLorean at the precise moment to send Marty back to the future. Every musical phrase in that scene adds a great deal to what’s going on with the characters. We feel Doc’s fear, desperation, frustration, and innovation more deeply because of the musical cues. We root even harder for Marty to save Doc and get the DeLorean going because of the thoughtful and invigorating music.
The music in Die Hard never adds anything that wouldn’t be there without it. We understand that John McClane is trying to hide from the bad guys during moments when the music gets quiet. We already know he’s in danger of getting killed in a gunfight when the music amps up to a heart-pounding rhythm. We realize something funny is happening when the music comes to a dead stop or includes a silly stinger. We recognize that something big is coming when the music slowly builds, note by note, to a crescendo.
Michael Kamen composed the music for many great films in addition to Die Hard, including Lethal Weapon and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Lethal Weapon has the same problem as Die Hard. The music isn’t very special and it’s not something I’d care to listen to divorced from the film itself. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a whole other story. That has one of the best main themes of all time. So I don’t fault Kamen for not coming up with something special for Die Hard. He certainly had it within in him to do so. He was just restrained for one reason or another.
I feel like I’m just ragging on the film’s soundtrack. I have no right to do that. I really like the mood that it sets. It’s great when Hans Gruber and his henchmen are taking over the Nakatomi building. The music keeps offering fun little surprises that punctuate the action. You really feel the dread and hopelessness of the situation while McClane is oblivious to it all.
I also like the music that plays under the scene where Gruber straight up murders Mr. Takagi. It’s threatening and suspenseful as McClane sneaks around and tries to listen in on the conversation. The moment that Gruber kills Takagi is truly horrifying, thanks in part to the music.
And the police assault on the building is also solid. It manages to poke fun at the seriousness of the situation while also building genuine tension. I especially love the buildup of the police’s armored vehicle, which has a theme that sounds quite intimidating until you realize that it’s just going to burst into flames right after ramming into the building. Then it becomes ironic and even a little humorous in a dark sort of way.
But do you see the problem with all of these tracks? They wash off quickly so that by the end we can’t really remember much about them. There are just so many ideas and emotions being conveyed without one unifying melody, so that it becomes impossible to keep them all straight. The only songs I can remember clearly from the film are “Ode to Joy” and “Let It Snow.” Those are both used brilliantly at just the right moments. There are numerous allusions to “Ode to Joy” in the soundtrack, and I like that it’s the music that’s playing when Gruber and his men crash the party.
An Adequate Soundtrack, Nothing More
The music in Die Hard is adequate, but it’s nothing special. It’s ironic for a film that took so many chances and got so much right to go so middle-of-the-road with its soundtrack.
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I have to disagree. Strongly.
First of all, you build from the premise that a great score has to have a great melody. That’s not true. A melody is just another filmmaking devise — like a steady cam, it doesn’t have to be used to make a movie great. Director McTiernan tends to use on other techniques than melody, his Predator and Hunt for Red October also didn’t use much of melody.
Not having a melody serving as a character as, say, E.T. or Interstellar doesn’t make these movies any inferior, even if the might feel less… cinematic. And it changes how you judge a score apart from the film when you’re listing to it on cd. It certainly does mean that we have to get more under the hood of what the score actually adds to the movie.
The way McTierman does use music is more subtle. Basically Die Hard’s score is three layered. First there’s the terrorists’ prize (represented by Beethoven’s 9th). Second there’s the action/suspense (with a fast riff, shaped in a rock idiom, which was quite innovative a the time). And third there’s the Christmas bells, all ready established in the opening track before the logo. In the movie this is attached to Bruce Willis’ character.
The ‘terrorists’ prize’-layer is building up the entire first two acts. You can hear just four notes of it brooding when the trucks arrive, adding a note each time the Gruber’s men go to a different stage of there plan. Kamen is playing whit the tonal colors of it, switching from upper to lower brass.
The action/suspense theme is not drawing attention to itself, I give you that. But is by design. I reckon that is because the real attention should go to layer three, the Christmas music.
Not only does it continues to interlink Die Hard to Christmas, it also underscores the comedy. The best example of it is when John McClane is trying to blow up the rocket launcher from the elevator shaft. We cut from terrorists to the police RV on fire with basically the same music enhancing tension and cold, operative way of the terrorists working (staccato brass, drums, long notes on the strings, metal percussion), but every time we see a panicking McClane trying to tackle the situation, not knowing what he’s doing, we get a lighter tone, muted trumpet, Kamen’s electronic bells, short string notes even some woodwinds).
While the layer of action does what is has to do, the score seems to be designed to emphasize the funny, not the action. And if you think of it, that’s quite ingenious. With cops being burned inside there RV the movie sticks to being lighthearted.
Die Hard was basically being scored as a comedy score, keeping the movie balanced and watchable even after decades of knowing what will happen next. And a great, if not the best, Christmas movie.
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Thank you. I have to disagree about the Predator and Hunt for Red October scores. Those have very memorable themes that are easy to recall. They were done by two very different composers.
Again, you highlight the point that the score is perfectly fine for what it is, but I would still argue that doesn’t make it special or great. I did note in the article that I like the music that plays over the police assault scene. It does a decent job getting the feeling of suspense and fun across, but that’s all.
I do admit that’s a clever insight you have into the use Beethoven’s 9th and the other two layers of music. Definitely a great Christmas movie. 🙂
I love the music in die hard but I would love to know what the roof top song is please respond
It’s the music that plays while John is freeing the hostages, getting shot at by the FBI agents who are in a helicopter, and jumping off the roof with a water hose wrapped around his waist. It’s hard for me to recollect what it sounds like when everything else seems to overpower the soundtrack in that scene.
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