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 (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.
Die Hard with a Vengeance (Michael Kamen, 1995): The third film in the (increasingly silly titled) Die Hard series departed quite a bit from the formula of the first 2 films. Although it marked the return of original director John McTiernan, the only returning cast member was Bruce Willis. In addition, the 3rd film was set in the summer instead of the holidays and the action took place all over Manhattan instead of in a single, enclosed venue.
Michael Kamen returned once again to score what would be his final entry in the series. Unfortunately, the available soundtrack CD is a pretty poor representation of the score. Only a little under a half hour of Kamen’s music is included, with the rest of the CD taken up by a variety of songs (only incidentally used in the film), much of it rap. Some of the rap music uses raw language that actually gets the album a parental advisory warning. The CD also contains a 9 minute recording of the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which included the “Ode to Joy” that was incorporated in the first movie but wasn’t used in this one.
The Kamen music featured on the CD is very similar in character to what he provided for the previous films, with a closer match to the more orchestral approach used in Die Hard 2. In fact, the film tracked in a fair amount of music from the previous sequel in place of original cues. As with the previous scores, Kamen made pretty extensive use of an existing work, this time a specific melody from the 4th movement of Brahms’ Symphony #1, best known as the basis for the folk song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. While a full 15 minute recording of the Brahms’ piece is included on the CD, Kamen’s use of it within the score is almost entirely absent from the CD.
This is a score that desperately needs to be re-visited with an expanded CD release. Much of the best material (including most of the key action sequences) is missing from the currently available release. The current album is, I suppose, better than nothing, but hopefully one of the labels will eventually release a better version.
Live Free Or Die Hard (Marco Beltrami, 2007): There was a 12 year gap between the 3rd and 4th films in the Die Hard series. Sadly, series composer Michael Kamen passed away in 2003. Marco Beltrami was brought on board to take over scoring for the new film. While a little bit of Kamen’s previous thematic material (most notably, the signature motif) is incorporated into the score, amazingly Kamen is not credited on the film or the soundtrack album.
Beltrami does appear to have studied Kamen’s scoring of the previous films and there is an overall similarity in style. As with the Kamen scores, strings tend to be dominant with occasional blasts of brass and percussion. Beltrami does make more substantial use of electronics than Kamen did, but otherwise the score doesn’t seem overly far removed from the previous entries in the series.
One big difference is that Beltrami did not incorporate any existing music into the score like Kamen did with each of the previous three films. That key deviation does make the score seem a bit more generic than its predecessors. Hearing a Die Hard score without the carefully interweaving of an existing piece as a key theme really underlines how creative Kamen’s approach really was.
Dinosaur (James Newton Howard, 2000): Dinosaur was Disney’s first attempt at producing a computer animated feature without Pixar. It featured an unusual approach where CGI characters overlaid live action backgrounds, which resulted in a visually very impressive film. Unfortunately, the film was weakened by a much too conventional storyline that particularly seemed way too close to Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time.
Besides the visuals, one of the film’s bigger strengths was James Newton Howard’s lively and exciting score. Howard’s score is highly melodic and thematic, impressively performed by full orchestra and choir. African-influenced rhythms and vocals are particularly well used during many parts of the score. Much of the emotional resonance in the film is heavily enhanced by the musical accompaniment.
One problem that the film had, which is somewhat echoed in the score, is that it featured an exceptionally impressive opening sequence that the rest of the film was not able to live up to. This sequence introduced the movie’s dinosaur world and then followed a lost egg as it was carried across the landscape by a variety of methods. The music from this sequence is featured on the soundtrack in the cue “The Egg Travels”, which also contains the first introduction to the score’s soaring primary theme. While the rest of the score is excellent, it never quite repeats the peak that it reaches during this very early cue.
Dirty Dancing (Various, 1987): The soundtrack album to Dirty Dancing was one of the top selling song soundtracks of the 1980s and even ranked pretty high among pop albums in general. The album also came from one of the more unlikely hits of the era, a small independent film that ended up as a major blockbuster.
The soundtrack contains several original songs (several of which were hit singles) as well as some fairly well known oldies that were used in the film. The movie is essentially a musical and the songs included on the soundtrack album are generally featured pretty prominently in the foreground of the film as accompaniment to big dance numbers. None of the score (by John Morris) is featured on the album, but the film didn’t have much instrumental score.
The best known original song was “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” performed by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, which accompanied the big dance at the film’s finale. The song was a huge hit single and also won that year’s Academy Award for Best Song as well as Grammy and Golden Globe awards. While it is hard to deny that the song is kind of sappy, it is also pretty undeniably catchy and it was exceptionally effective in the film.
Two other big hits from the film and soundtrack are the ballads “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen and “She’s Like the Wind”, co-written and performed by the film’s co-star, Patrick Swayze. Both are fairly generic pop songs, although pretty good for what they are. Swayze’s singing voice is competent, although it isn’t hard to tell why he didn’t have any significant singing career outside of the one hit. Other less-known originals on the album are “Yes” by Merry Clayton, “Overload” by Alfie Zappacosta, “Where Are You Tonight?” by Tom Johnston and a cover of the 1960s song “You Don’t Own Me” performed by The Blow Monkeys.
A 20th Anniversary Edition of the soundtrack was released in 2007. This CD combines the contents of the original soundtrack and a later “More Dirty Dancing” album (which I didn’t have) plus one additional cue into a single CD with the music presented in film order. Priced as a single disc (Amazon sells it for $10.34), this is obviously the version to get if you don’t currently have any of the albums for the film. In fact, I was unaware of this release until I looked up the album while working on this review and I ordered a copy of it after discovering its low-cost availability.
The majority of the additions are pre-existing songs that are pretty readily available elsewhere, including such often heard songs as “Wipe Out”, “Do You Love Me”, “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “These Arms of Mine”. It also includes four instrumental dance numbers performed by Michael Lloyd and the “Kellerman’s Anthem” farewell song that is used towards the end of the film. Perhaps one of the biggest selling points for the new release, though, is that it contains the film version of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” which runs almost 2 minutes longer than the single version, which was included on the original soundtrack album.