Home > Reviews > LETHAL WEAPON – Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton, and David Sanborn

LETHAL WEAPON – Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton, and David Sanborn


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Although it was pre-dated by films like 48 HRS., Lethal Weapon is the film which for me best defines the 1980s buddy-cop movie sub-genre. It’s a thrilling, action-packed, funny, surprisingly moving film written by Shane Black and directed by Richard Donner, starring Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs, a loose-cannon LAPD cop and former Vietnam War sniper with a suicidal streak after the death of his wife. In an attempt to rein him in, Riggs is assigned a new partner in the shape of Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a cranky, by-the-book homicide department veteran with a wife and three kids at home, and who doesn’t tolerate Riggs’s increasingly off-the-wall antics. However, things become more difficult for the new partners when they become embroiled in a plot which links the death of a woman who committed suicide by jumping from a high rise with a gang of vicious drug dealers, and which becomes personal when it is revealed that the drug dealers may be men from Riggs’s past. The film co-starred Mitchell Ryan, Gary Busey, Tom Atkins, Steve Kahan, and Darlene Love, and was an enormous box-office smash, grossing more than $65 million in the United States alone.

The score for Lethal Weapon was written by the London-based American composer Michael Kamen, and proved to be one of his career-defining works. Prior to scoring Lethal Weapon Kamen was respected, but not especially prominent; his most high profile scores prior to this one were The Dead Zone from 1983, Brazil from 1985, and Highlander from 1986, and in musical circles he was much more well known as an outstanding arranger, having worked with pop artists ranging from Pink Floyd to Queen, and David Bowie, among others. However, it was his work on the 1985 British TV mini-series Edge of Darkness that ultimately proved to be the catalyst for his success. Kamen worked with the legendary English blues guitarist Eric Clapton on Edge of Darkness, which was enormously popular in the UK and won Kamen a BAFTA Award for Best Original Television Score. Edge of Darkness impressed Lethal Weapon’s editor Stuart Baird – an Englishman who had seen the show – to the extent that he temped Lethal Weapon with Kamen’s music. Director Richard Donner, who is notorious for falling in love with his temp tracks, stayed true to form again, and hired Kamen for this film, with the expectation that he would bring Clapton’s guitar sound with him.

Kamen exceeded expectations by not only procuring the services of Clapton and his guitars, but also bringing jazz saxophonist David Sanborn along for the ride too; Sanborn was an old friend from Kamen’s days at Juilliard when they were both part of the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. Kamen’s music blends these two instrumental soloists with his orchestra, resulting in one of the most iconic musical palettes of the decade. Kamen essentially uses the two instruments to represent the two lead characters. Clapton’s guitar is the sound of Riggs: lonely, sensitive, but also given to moments of swaggering arrogance and bursts of violence. Conversely, Sanborn’s saxophone is the sound of Murtaugh: tired, world-weary, exasperated, but with a strong, soulful quality that hints at his inner strength and sense of morality. The two instruments dance around each other throughout the entire score, sometimes independently, sometimes together. There are no specific themes per se, but both Clapton and Sanborn often play recurring riffs and motifs, gradually developing an identifiable sound for each character. These performances are then expertly incorporated into Kamen’s powerful orchestral lines, which often explode into sequences of throbbing, intense action.

After an unexpected opening title sequence, which features a performance of “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms, amusingly identifying the film’s seasonal setting, the score begins with the moody “Amanda,” a piece for low, throbbing pianos and moody strings that underscores the event that acts as the catalyst for the entire plot – the suicide of young Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson). The cue also introduces the slithery, icy four note theme for the villains of the piece, General McAllister and his henchman Mr. Joshua, the leaders of the mysterious Shadow Company organization. This segues into “Meeting Martin Riggs/Roger’s Daughter,” which features the first performance of Murtaugh’s saxophone licks and Riggs’s guitar riffs, as the two new partners meet for the first time.

Riggs’s music actually has more depth to it than one might expect. In cues like “Suicide” and “Took a Lot of Guts/Riggs’ Soliloquy” the music adopts an emotional tone full of dark textures. The combination of Clapton’s guitars, both acoustic and electric, with quietly sad strings, understated synth accompaniment, and twinkling harps, offer an insight into Riggs’s fragile mental state, and the profound sense of loss in his life. On the other hand, cues like “The Jumper” and “Firing Range” are funky and playful, speaking to the raucous and occasionally slightly manic side to Riggs’s mental state. In “The Jumper” the guitars are in a constant clash with the saxophone, illustrating the different approaches the two cops have in how to deal with a suicidal man threatening to leap from the ledge of a building.

Murtaugh’s music, on the other hand, tends to be more sympathetic, showing a great deal of compassion when he realizes that Amanda – the suicide victim from the opening scene – is the daughter of his old friend Michael Hunsaker. Cues like “She Just Dove” and “Porno Tape” blend sax solos with the orchestra in a downbeat fashion. Things get interesting when the two styles combine, as they often illustrate the state of the relationship between the two detectives; for example, in “Drive to Dealer’s House” the interplay between saxophone and guitar has an argumentative, bickering quality. Later, in “They’ve Got My Daughter/Is Riggs Dead Or What?,” the anguished wails from both electric guitar and saxophone, and the accompanying emotional orchestral swells, emphasize the growing friendship between the two men, and the concern they have for the other’s wellbeing. Interestingly, “Drive to Dealer’s House” is underpinned by a performance of Kamen’s groovy theme from an original song, “Lethal Weapon,” which Kamen wrote with Canadian rock band Honeymoon Suite.

One other interesting touch that develops is an additional identity for the Shadow Company. In cues like “Burning Joshua” and “The Hunsacker Story” Kamen worked closely with percussionist Emil Richards, resulting in a sound full of eerie, grating synth noises, and abstract percussion. Gongs, chimes, water bowls, and various drums paint a picture of Mr. Joshua’s psychotic personality and his imperviousness to pain, while the South East Asian percussion items subtly reference the group’s Vietnam War connection.

However, for me the most interesting part of the score is the action music, as it is the genesis of the action sound Kamen developed throughout much of his career. Through cues like “Coke Deal,” “Rog and Riggs Confront,” “Dealer’s House/Swimming Pool,” “Helicopter/Riggs Walks to Tart,” “Dixie’s House/Alfred,” and “Riggs Gets Shot,” Kamen assaults the listener with a battery of throbbing brass, punchy string writing, and a recurring six-note action ostinato that underpins almost all of the film’s set pieces. Riggs’s guitar motif weaves through much of the action too, identifying him as being both the catalyst for, and the recipient of, much of the film’s violence. But Kamen is clever with his music too; for example, “Dixie’s House/Alfred” begins with a frantic action statement as the house of the only witness to Amanda’s death explodes, almost taking Riggs and Murtaugh with it; however, as the cue develops, Kamen subtly, almost subliminally, allows the Shadow Company theme to re-emerge underneath Riggs’s guitars as a young street kid, Alfred, inadvertently sends the investigation in a different direction when he recognizes a tattoo on Riggs’s arm. This same concept of the Shadow Company motif insinuating itself into the score continues in “Riggs Gets Shot,” where the performance of the theme on high strings underneath a whole arsenal of intense, frantic brass hits identifies its agents as the perpetrators.

The score’s final act begins with “The Desert,” a 9-minute set piece which underscores the confrontation in the desert in which Riggs and Murtaugh try to rescue Murtaugh’s daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe) from the clutches of the Shadow Company. The cue is filled with rolling, tempestuous brass lines, surging strings, nervous tapped cymbals, and an insect-like buzzing electronic loop. Here, the Shadow Company theme re-emerges as a fanfare for imposing brass, while the regular interjection from the clattering percussion is a direct reference to the presence of Mr. Joshua. The sequence that begins at 6:08 and continues through to the end of the cue is superb, chaotic, frenzied.

“Hummingbird Treatment” is an aggressive, synth-heavy variation on the Shadow Company percussion ideas which accompanies the scene of Riggs being tortured via the ‘hummingbird’ electricity and water method; sampled sounds of Mel Gibson’s screams add a level of horror to the mix. A heroic explosion of orchestra, Riggs’s guitar, and Murtaugh’s saxophone herald “Riggs Escapes,” as Riggs subdues the henchman (Al Leong) and breaks free to join Murtaugh in a pursuit of McAllister and Joshua. “We’re Leaving” underscores the subsequent Hollywood Boulevard chase sequence, and is for me the best action sequence in the score. Horns, drums, and strings perform a relentless rhythmic ostinato, while xylophones and harps add surprisingly effective contrapuntal textures. Regular statements of the Shadow Company theme litter the piece, keeping the focus on the subjects of the pursuit. The brass flurries in the cue’s second half are sensational, and continue through “General’s Car,” where the tension-filled interplay between horns, trombone, and trumpet leads to an explosive finish. “S.O.B. Knows Where I Live” is an anguished, desperate roar of saxophones and guitars, underpinned by a sense of purpose, which lead into the “Yard Fight,” the film’s final sequence which sees Riggs and Joshua fighting mano-a-mano, drenched, bloody, and muddy, on the front lawn of Murtaugh’s house. The Shadow Company percussion licks weave their way through the tense, gritty orchestral lines, until Riggs finally prevails; the score ends with a final statement of the ‘Sad Riggs’ music in “Graveside,” as the battered hero visits the final resting place of his beloved wife, and vows to fight on in her name.

Lethal Weapon has a complicated release history. The score was originally released on vinyl LP and cassette by Warner Brothers in 1987, with a program that featured nine of Kamen’s score cues and the Honeymoon Suite song. Several bootlegs of the score emerged throughout the 1990s, but it was not officially released on CD until 2002 when it was the debut title from Michael Kamen’s short-lived Bacchus Media label; this CD expanded the score to 16 cues and over an hour of music, including the debut release of the iconic “Hollywood Boulevard Chase” sequence. Sadly, the label’s demise coincided with the composer’s own death in 2003. The definitive edition of the score was released in 2013 as part of La-La Land Records’s magnificent 8-CD box set of the scores from all four Lethal Weapon films; this version expands the score even further, with 25 score cues, songs, and alternate bonus tracks, lovingly presented in a superb package produced by Neil Bulk and MV Gerhard, and with liner notes by Jeff Bond.

It’s clear from the score’s longevity and enduring popularity that Lethal Weapon is one of the greatest action scores of the 1980s. Although the saxophone/guitar combination has been parodied numerous times over the years, and may have since passed into cliché, the effectiveness of the sound’s initial iteration in this score is undeniable, and Michael Kamen’s inventiveness should not be overlooked. The power and scope of the action sequences – especially the Hollywood Boulevard Chase – are indicative of the stylistics Kamen would rely on for most of the rest of his career, and it’s fascinating to see them coalesce here. La-La Land’s album is the now definitive presentation of the score, and should be in the collection of any film music fan who wants to know every 1980s film music cultural touchstone.

Buy the Lethal Weapon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Lethal Weapon (written by Michael Kamen, Dermot Grehan, Johnnie Dee, and Rob Preuss, performed by Honeymoon Suite) (2:42)
  • Amanda (3:05)
  • Meet Martin Riggs (5:20)
  • Roger (4:00)
  • Coke Deal (4:13)
  • Mr. Joshua (4:03)
  • They’ve Got My Daughter (1:03)
  • The Desert (7:40)
  • Nightclub (3:33)
  • The Weapon (4:21)
  • Meet Martin Riggs (5:19)
  • Amanda (3:05)
  • Suicide Attempt (2:21)
  • The Jumper/Rog & Riggs Confront (6:16)
  • Roger (3:59)
  • Coke Deal (4:16)
  • Mr. Joshua (4:03)
  • They’ve Got My Daughter (1:02)
  • The Desert (7:42)
  • We’re Getting Too Old For This (2:41)
  • Hollywood Blvd Chase (4:10)
  • The General’s Car (1:40)
  • S.O.B. Knows Where I Live (1:14)
  • Yard Fight/Graveside (6:06)
  • The Weapon (4:25)
  • Nightclub (3:37)
  • Lethal Weapon (written by Michael Kamen, Dermot Grehan, Johnnie Dee, and Rob Preuss, performed by Honeymoon Suite) (2:40)
  • Jingle Bell Rock (written by Joe Beal and Jim Boothe, performed by Bobby Helms) (2:03)
  • Amanda (3:44)
  • Meeting Martin Riggs/Roger’s Daughter (1:20)
  • She Just Dove (1:03)
  • Coke Deal (1:59)
  • Suicide (2:26)
  • Meet Your New Partner (2:35)
  • Burning Joshua (0:51)
  • The Jumper (4:51)
  • Rog and Riggs Confront (1:33)
  • Drive to Dealer’s House (2:43)
  • Dealer’s House/Swimming Pool (3:03)
  • Took a Lot of Guts/Riggs’ Soliloquy (1:36)
  • Porno Tape (1:20)
  • Firing Range (1:33)
  • Dixie’s House/Alfred (2:10)
  • The Hunsacker Story (3:03)
  • Helicopter/Riggs Walks to Tart (1:47)
  • Riggs Gets Shot (1:00)
  • They’ve Got My Daughter/Is Riggs Dead Or What? (2:31)
  • The Desert (8:56)
  • Hummingbird Treatment/Riggs Escapes (4:49)
  • We’re Leaving (4:11)
  • General’s Car (1:42)
  • S.O.B. Knows Where I Live (1:17)
  • Yard Fight/Graveside (5:57)
  • Suicide (original) (1:38) – BONUS
  • Suicide (alternate) (2:34) – BONUS
  • Helicopter (alternate mix) (1:39) – BONUS
  • S.O.B. Knows Where I Live (orchestra only) (1:17) – BONUS

Running Time: 40 minutes 24 seconds (Warner)
Running Time: 65 minutes 28 seconds (Bacchus)
Running Time: 77 minutes 59 seconds (La-La Land)

Warner Brothers 1-25561 (1987)
Bacchus Media Group MKCD-01 (1987/2002)
La-La Land LLLCD-1287 (1987/2013)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Kamen. Orchestrations by Bruce Babcock, William Ross and Chris Boardman. Additional music and featured musical solos by Eric Clapton and David Sanborn. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Christopher Brooks. Score produced by Michael Kamen. Bacchus album produced by Michael Kamen, Robert Urband and Ford A. Thaxton. La-La Land album produced by Neil S. Bulk and MV Gerhard.

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