Music in the movies: Michael Kamen

Prolific composer Michael Kamen has written memorable themes for action movies such as Highlander and Die Hard. He also wrote songs for Bryan Adams, but we won’t hold that against him...

A prolific composer throughout his career up until his death seven years ago, Michael Kamen earned himself a reputation as a master of action movie scores through working on two of the genre’s biggest franchises, amongst other notable projects.

He also showed a propensity for collaboration in both his composing career and other musical projects, with him working with the likes of Eric Clapton, Metallica, Queen, Orbital and David Bowie, to name but a few.

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Twice Oscar-nominated for Best Original Song for Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman From Don Juan De Marco and (Everything I Do) I Do It For You from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, both of which were sung by Bryan Adams, Kamen never received Academy recognition for one of his scores. This is a great shame considering the quality of some of the pieces he composed throughout his career.

Below are what I consider to be some of Kamen’s finest pieces.

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Brazil

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Solid, if not outstanding, would adequately some up Kamen’s score for Gilliam’s Brazil. Few would say that the biggest draw for the film is his score, but it is a serviceable effort that provides a decent enough showcase for his talents.

Predominantly, the score is made up of big orchestral numbers, where variations of Ary Barroso’s Aquarela Do Brasil isn’t carrying the piece, as it acts as the leitmotif. The piece is worth seeking out purely for the Kate Bush rendition of the title song. Her fantastic voice backed by the National Philharmonic orchestra really is a treat.

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Highlander

The music for Highlander is a combination of Kamen’s score and material written and performed by Queen specifically for the film. Unfortunately, the soundtrack album wasn’t made widely available, but there are copies out there at quite a hefty price, which means there’s a source for the majority of Queen’s material, as it featured on their A Kind Of Magic album. But Kamen’s excellent score can be tricky for fans to track down.

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Full of lush stings and orchestrations, this is a bold and emotive score that would easily reach a wider audience, should it be more widely available.

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Lethal Weapon

Fresh from working on the score for Highlander, Kamen set out to score this 80s action classic. To assist him in setting the tone for the film, he called on the services of Eric Clapton, who helped him create an excellent score for the BBC television series Edge Of Darkness.

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Rather unsurprisingly, a lot of the plaudits went the way of the Clapton pieces used as the theme for Mel Gibson’s character Riggs, but the effect and quality of Kamen’s score as a whole shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Intricate and epic in equal measure, it’s a fantastic piece of action scoring from Kamen that incorporates elements of rock and jazz with orchestration to great effect.

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Die Hard

Like his work on Brazil, Kamen’s score here is built around, and utilises elements of, previously recorded and popular material, this time in the form of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Singin’ In The Rain, which act as themes for characters in the film as well as a nod to the influence of A Clockwork Orange.

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Despite the borrowed cues, there is plenty of originality to be found here, as Kamen solidified his reputation as one of the finest action composers of the 80s by creating one of the landmark scores of the genre to that point, and one that still stands up as favourably as the film it accompanies to this day.

Adventures Of Baron Munchausen

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Kamen’s score for one of the more Python-esque of Gilliam films matches the required mood perfectly, as it oozes deadpan hilarity from almost every note.

A fine example of orchestral complexity and haunting beauty, this is an incredible score that improves with each listen as you uncover its various subtleties.

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This is the finest showcase of Kamen’s versatility as a composer, so packed with highlights it’s a must-own score.

Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves

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Perhaps best known for that song that wouldn’t go away that would earn Kamen an Oscar nomination for best original song, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves boasts an effective Kamen composed score.

There are times that it feels like the score, in combination with the images on screen, are out to overtly manipulate your emotions, and it doesn’t hold up that well as a standalone listen, but it serves its purpose. And, despite occasionally being a little manipulative, it’s actually pretty good. Not the best work I’ve heard by Kamen, by any means, but his utilisation of old English instrumentation and using elements of the hit single (Everything I Do) I Do It For You evoke the required moods.

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Event Horizon

I really love Event Horizon and never fail to be terrified whenever I watch it. Sure, it’s not the most subtle of sci-fi horror movies, but it sure is entertaining.

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For the score, Kamen collaborated withOrbital and the resulting effects are mixed but, at times, hugely enjoyable and suit the tone of the film as it sets out to unnerve and startle with its blend of eerie soundscapes and thumping techno madness.

Listened to in isolation, the soundtrack is an interesting experience, as it’s easy to imagine scenes playing out which goes some way to show the effectiveness of the piece as a whole, as it starts strong and builds until it reaches the finale, which seems as though everything was thrown in to create an aural assault.

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The Iron Giant

This Brad Bird-directed animated feature is an absolute classic, boasting an incredible script that deals with themes of cold war paranoia and has a huge heart at its core.

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Within the context of the film, this Kamen score is beautiful and hugely effective, eliciting the kind of emotional reactions that Michael Giacchino would draw on for his work on later Bird productions.

Like with some of his previous works, Kamen tips his hat to a number of his influences here, with overt homage’s to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

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Animated features aren’t familiar ground for Kamen and this is far from a typical score from him. Indeed, there’s nothing quite like it in his back catalogue. Still, this move out of his comfort zone results in a hugely accomplished and emotive score, with a number of beautiful and haunting melodies heard throughout.

Please add your Kamen highlights to the comments section below.