Archive for December, 2010

Soundtrack Collection: Die Hard to Dirty Dancing

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Die Hard

Die Hard (Michael Kamen, 1988): Today, the original Die Hard is considered to be an iconic action film.  Not only was it a blockbuster that kicked off a major franchise and established the film careers of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, it essentially served as the prototype to an entire sub-genre of action movies that are now regularly described with a phrase starting with “Die Hard on a …”  At the time it came out, the film was viewed as having more limited potential, though, particularly due to it headlining Willis, who at the time was primarily a TV actor and mainly known for romantic comedy.

Likely due to the limited expectations for the film as well as the prominent use of non-original music, no soundtrack album was released along with the film.  Although the sequel scores were released with the films, Michael Kamen’s score remained unavailable (at least officially) until Varese Sarabande finally put it out on a 3000 copy limited edition “CD Club” release in 2002.  That release sold out fairly quickly and used copies today fetch prices well in excess of $100.  The soundtrack seems to be a pretty obvious candidate for a re-issue, but right now it remains one that is costly and difficult to obtain, if you don’t already have it.

Kamen’s original contributions to the score were dominated by stark, intense themes dominated by deep brass, vivid strings, and some very effective acoustic guitar.  The most recognizable component is a brief, guitar motif that is essentially the Die Hard series’ musical signature.  This motif is really too short to truly classify as a theme, but it is a distinctive element that is instantly associated with these films. 

A particularly interesting element to this score is Kamen’s use of the film’s Christmas time setting.  Kamen occasionally integrates sleigh bells or bell choir into the score as well as brief samples of familiar Christmas tunes such as “Winter Wonderland”.  These brief excerpts are presented in an almost chillingly menacing way.  The use of familiar holiday-associated melodies and instruments presented in this way makes for a very interesting effect.  The film memorably ends with the upbeat holiday classic “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” playing over the end credits and the song also closes the soundtrack CD, although in an instrumental version rather than the traditional version used in the film.

The most prominent and memorable non-original music used in the score is the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Bits of this familiar melody are regularly integrated into the score, essentially serving as a primary theme for the film’s villains.  The melody is then presented in full accompanying the key scene where the villains manage to open the safe that they came to the building to rob.  The disconnect between this emotionally full and usually joyful music and the temporary triumph of the bad guys is a bold, memorable and remarkably effective musical choice.  While “Ode to Joy” is not traditionally associated with the holidays, its use still served to vividly underscore the film’s unusual juxtaposition of festive/joyful elements with violence and peril.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Die Hard 2: Die Harder (Michael Kamen, 1990): For the first sequel to Die Hard, the filmmakers (led by new director Renny Harlin) didn’t stray too far from the formula established in the first film.  The sequel once again takes place during the holiday season and again has Bruce Willis fighting back against terrorists in a fairly enclosed complex (this time an airport instead of a skyscraper).  The film even included a few bits of dialog that directly addressed the implausibility of Willis’ character facing two such similar situations.

Michael Kamen was brought back to score the sequel and provided a score that is contains some similarities to the original, although with a few key differences as well.  One of the most obvious differences right from the start is that this score seems a bit more fully orchestral than the original.  Even the familiar Die Hard signature motif is generally performed by the orchestra’s violin section this time instead of on acoustic guitar as in the original.

The airport setting provided a more expansive setting, including considerably more outdoor sequences, so the somewhat larger scale of the score is fitting.  The first score tended to be dominated by stark, tension-filled cues, and there are similar ones here as well, the new one provides more opportunities for more dynamic, high-octane chase type music as well.  The cue “Snowmobiles”, which accompanies an almost James Bond style chase sequence late in the film, is a particularly good example of this side of the score.

Kamen did not repeat the use of “Ode to Joy” or the Christmas carol excerpts from the first film.  He does once again incorporate an existing piece into the score, though.  This time the piece that he uses is “Finlanda” by Jean Sibelius, which is certainly not as well-known or familiar as the Beethoven piece.  A full performance of the piece closes out the soundtrack CD, which was released by Varese Sarabande at the time that the movie came out.

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Soundtrack Collection: Diamond Head to Die Another Day

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Diamond Head

Diamond Head (John Williams, 1963): Diamond Head was John Williams’ first feature film score to receive a soundtrack album release (some of his TV work was released earlier).  The LP was originally released on the Colpix Records label and is currently available on CD from Film Score Monthly, paired with Lalo Schifrin’s Gone With the Wave.  The Diamond Head album runs a little over half an hour and features a mix of Williams’ original score and various Williams-composed source cues.

In the 1960s, Williams most frequently scored comedies and most of his scores tended to have a light, pop/jazz style.  Diamond Head was a drama, though, and featuring a score that much more closely resembled Williams’ later highly thematic symphonic sound. Cues such as the “Main Title” cue as well as “Sloan Strolls” and “Sloan’s Dream” are very recognizably in line with Williams most recognizable style of music.

The inclusion of the source cues makes the album into something of a hybrid between Williams’ early and later approaches to scoring.  The source cues have more of a small ensemble, somewhat jazz-influenced sound to them with an emphasis on piano, horns, and underlying percussion.  The cue “Catamaran” is a particularly interesting hybrid, starting off with a lighter jazz piano melody before eventually seguing into a string-dominated orchestral conclusion.

The album opens with a title song written by Hugo Winterhalter and performed by James Darren, one of the film’s co-stars.  The song is a pretty typical pop song of that era, although with a bit of a Hawaiian tropical influence to fit the setting of the film.  Williams does occasionally incorporate Winterhalter’s melody into the score cues.

Diamonds Are Forever

Diamonds Are Forever (John Barry, 1972): Diamonds Are Forever was the 7th film (and the last to star Sean Connery) in Eon Productions’ James Bond series.  By this point, the musical style of the series was firmly established by John Barry, who had worked on all of the previous films and was the sole credited composer on all but the first.

As was often the case with the Bond scores, the central melody here comes from the title song, written by Barry with lyrics by Don Black and performed by Shirley Bassey over the opening title.  This was Bassey’s second Bond theme song after her famous performance of “Goldfinger”.  While she would only return to the series one more time (for “Moonraker”), her vocal style remains the one that is most associated with the Bond films.

The song itself is a textbook example of Barry’s James Bond sound, with his distinctive mix of strings, piano, and blasting horns.  The lyrics to the song are loaded with sexual innuendo, even a bit more so than usual for a James Bond theme.  The theme has a distinctive melody that Barry uses well throughout the rest of the score.  Of course, the classic James Bond theme is also incorporated into the score periodically, including an electric guitar rendition that played over the usual gun barrel opening and more orchestral versions in other parts of the score.

The score is very typical of Barry’s Bond scores, with a very melodic, but often boldly energetic approach.  As expected, it is dominated by lush strings and extremely active brass.  As is usual for Barry, there is a bit of an underlying jazz influence, particularly in the occasional saxophone riffs.  The score does have a few interesting variations, particularly the unusual female choral music featured in the cue “Slumber, Inc.”

The most complete and readily available soundtrack release is an expanded CD that was released by Capital/EMI records back in 2003.  This disc contains about 75 minutes of music from the film (including a number of alternate cues), definitely a dramatic expansion over the original 35 minute LP release.  The CD is rather oddly sequenced, though, with the music presented in a seemingly almost random order.  While the title song does at least open the CD, the gun barrel opening doesn’t appear until track 13!  Throughout the album, the music is way out of film sequence.

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