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.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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