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Die Hard
  • Composed by Michael Kamen
  • La-La Land Records / 2011 / 107:52

Bruce Willis is probably the most watchable of the 1980s action heroes, and Die Hard is surely his greatest action film, a supremely enjoyable lark from John McTiernan which puts the decade’s other well-known action flicks in its shade.  With the witty one-liners and a plot which is extremely silly, but silly in a good way like the old James Bond films, it’s a wonderful piece of entertainment.  Amazingly, Fox was apparently very nervous about casting Willis in an action film, thinking he could only do romance – and they were lobbying for that well-known rugged action man Richard Gere to play the lead role.  The mind boggles.  Just as effective was the casting of Alan Rickman – in his first film – as the terrorist Hans Gruber; he created one of the great movie villains.

Michael Kamen became typecast as an action composer for some time on the back of this score and Lethal Weapon from a year earlier in 1987 (and of course their sequels); this was unfair because there was so much more to him than that, as he revealed later in his tragically-curtailed career.  But it’s easy to see why it came about – Die Hard in particular is a fearsomely complex work that (somewhat against the odds, for reasons explained later) works simply brilliantly in the film and became one of the most influential scores of its time.  In his liner notes for the 2002 Varèse Sarabande album of the score, producer Nick Redman compares Kamen with Jerry Fielding, a fascinating and thought-provoking thing to do (especially knowing Redman’s love of Fielding).  Actually, yes, the intellectually and compositionally uncompromising nature of the music – the beautifully subversive moments injected throughout – the almost total disregard for the conventions of the time (this couldn’t be further removed from Harald Faltermeyer if you tried) – they do certainly have something in common with Fielding’s great 1970s action scores.

Michael Kamen

There’s a relatively brief theme here for John McClane – you recognise it when you hear it, but you’re not likely to walk around the supermarket humming it – but the main melodic material is not actually by Kamen at all.  Famously, he used interpolations of Beethoven’s 9th (“Ode to Joy”) as a theme for Gruber, at McTiernan’s behest, and he gets much mileage from it, both subtly and not-so-subtly.  The Christmas setting also inspired the composer to work in interpolations of a couple of Christmas classics, “Let it Snow” and “Winter Wonderland”, the latter in particular being used throughout the score as an unlikely exciting action motif!  The composer even worked “Singin’ in the Rain” into a couple of sequences.  There isn’t that much all-out-action music (this is a somewhat slow burner of a score – in stark contrast to many action scores written more recently, Kamen knew the value of shutting up from time to time) but when it comes, it’s certainly exciting.  The orchestration favours the low end, a guitar adds texture, and when it’s all laid on, the thrills feel earned (“Tony and John Fight”, “Welcome to the Party”, “The Battle / Freeing the Hostages” and especially the great “Assault on the Tower”). Interestingly, little of Kamen’s score was actually used in the film in the way intended – the filmmakers instead repeating cues all over the place, dropping others, swapping them around, even tracking in a piece from John Scott’s music for Man on Fire for the finale.  The miracle amongst all that is how brilliantly it all works in the film.  Sometimes meddling directors really do know what they’re doing!

The great question to me, and where I’m not so certain, is how well this all works on album.  Had there been a soundtrack album issued at the time (inexplicably, there wasn’t), it would almost certainly have been around 40 minutes long and contained all the highlights.  I can imagine that being a great album, mixing the thrills with the subtle humour and suspense.  In fact, the score’s first release didn’t come until 2002, when a 75-minute album was released by the Varèse Sarabande CD Club.  Sound quality was an issue – it was as good as it could get at the time, but not great, especially considering it’s a 1988 film.  But it always felt a little long to me – some smart pruning was required to get a really good listen from that album.  In 2011, La-La Land released a new edition, benefiting from much improved sound (though still far from perfect) – and adding a whole heap of new music, as well as retitling and resequencing most of the cues.  This time round, the album’s 108 minutes (admittedly about 20 minutes of this is source music and various bonus cues) and it really is very hard to enjoy at that length.  I know that most people don’t feel the same way as me about these things – the longer the better being the prevailing school of thought – so of course that complaint won’t register for a lot of people.  This is certainly the most comprehensive Die Hard soundtrack I can imagine (and the liner notes go into great detail – Michael Kamen isn’t even mentioned until the 13th page of the booklet!) but I think the truly great Die Hard soundtrack is yet to be released and I suspect that album (which will of course never happen) would get an extra star than this one.  *** 1/2 |

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  1. elfenthalsmith (Reply) on Monday 3 December, 2012 at 16:09

    I wonder why people keep referring to Bruce Willis as an “80”s action hero”, when only one of his actions films was released in the 80s, and even then, at the tail end of this decade.

  2. James Southall (Reply) on Monday 3 December, 2012 at 16:17

    Maybe only one, but it was a pretty big one.

  3. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Monday 3 December, 2012 at 16:56

    How do you feel about the use of John Scott and James Horner in the film? The former was even included on La-La’s album.