Home > Reviews > DIE HARD – Michael Kamen

DIE HARD – Michael Kamen

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Die Hard is one of the most iconic, enduring, and ground-breaking action films ever made; it made an action star of former TV leading man Bruce Willis, launched the cinematic career of the late great Alan Rickman, and set the high benchmark for all the action movies that would follow it. The film is directed by John McTiernan and written by Steven de Souza and Jeb Stuart, based on the novel ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ by Roderick Thorp. Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop who has travelled to Los Angeles for his Christmas vacation, where he intends to try to reconcile with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). He arrives at his wife’s office skyscraper building, Nakatomi Plaza, where a Christmas party is underway. The party is disrupted by the arrival of a German terrorist group led by the suave but ruthless Hans Gruber (Rickman), which takes all the party-goers hostage – except for McClane, who escapes undetected onto a different floor. After Gruber brutally executes the company CEO, McClane becomes involved in a game of cat-and-mouse with the terrorists, picking them off one by one in an attempt to rescue the hostages. The film co-stars Alexander Godunov, Reginald Veljohnson, and Hart Bochner, and remains to this day one of my all-time favorite action movies.

Looking back on Die Hard today, one could be forgiven for finding it predictable and clichéd, but you have to remember that in 1988 this movie was groundbreaking: it was the film that invented the clichés in the first place. The lone hero fighting against overwhelming odds; the sophisticated and well-educated master criminal; the brutally realistic fight sequences where the hero genuinely gets hurt; the sarcastic one-liners and catchphrases. All of these conceits were either introduced in, or popularized by, Die Hard. The film altered the trajectory of Bruce Willis’s career entirely, turning him from a light comedy actor into a box office action movie draw, while simultaneously giving Alan Rickman an almost 20-year Hollywood livelihood as one of its most beloved character actors. There are so many iconic moments and lines that to list them here would be futile, suffice to say that the pop culture legacy and cinematic lexicon of the film is remarkable.

Musically, Die Hard is very interesting. The score is by Michael Kamen, who had enjoyed a great deal of success the previous year when he scored the first Lethal Weapon film, but who prior to 1987 (and despite being American) had worked mostly in the British film industry on movies like Brazil, Edge of Darkness, Highlander, and Mona Lisa. The double whammy of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard helped Kamen build a reputation as an action composer but – and this might be a bit controversial – I never felt that action was Kamen’s strong point. For me, his true genius was revealed when he composed from the heart rather than the bicep; his beautiful dramatic and romantic scores offered a much more revealing portrait of who he was as a person.

But that’s not to say there isn’t any good music in Die Hard, because there absolutely is. In many ways, Die Hard is a companion piece to Lethal Weapon, because his approach to the music is quite similar. Tonally, the two scores have a great deal in common, with Kamen blending a decent amount of orchestral intensity with a pair of recurring ideas for McClane’s character. The first, which I’m calling the ‘Cowboy Motif,’ is heard on a steel guitar – just like Riggs and Murtaugh were characterized by an electric guitar and a saxophone – and first appears in the opening cue, “The Nakatomi Plaza”. It’s a wry acknowledgement of the fact that Gruber, not knowing McClane’s identity, mockingly refers to him as John Wayne, to which McClane replies with his now iconic retort, “yippee-ki-yay mother fucker!” The second theme is ‘McClane’s Motif,’ but it doesn’t appear until much later in the score, during the suspense cue “And If He Alters It?” This 4-note motif for high strings underscores the escalating conflict between McClane and Gruber, once Gruber learns who McClane is, and forms the basis of the thematic writing in the score’s second half. Interestingly, the motif is not heroic, not bombastic, and almost seems vulnerable, as if speaking to McClane’s all-too-obvious human fragility.

What makes Die Hard a very different score from Lethal Weapon, though, is the way Kamen makes use of existing classical music and song melodies as an integral part of his score. Beginning in the second cue, “Gruber’s Arrival,” Kamen begins to pepper his energetic, muscular action music with numerous references to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (commonly known as “Ode to Joy”), as well as the music from the songs “Singin’ in the Rain” by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, and “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard and Dick Smith. Director McTiernan said that he incorporated “Singin’ in the Rain” into the score as an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange (which featured a memorable scene where actor Malcolm McDowell beats someone to death while singing it), while “Winter Wonderland” is intended to be a subliminal reminder that the film takes place on Christmas Eve. As the score develops these three pieces coalesce and become a set of recurring leitmotifs for Gruber and the terrorists, and Kamen has a ton of fun chopping up, playing with, and trying to disguise snippets of the music deep within his score.

These five musical ideas – Cowboy Motif, McClane’s Motif, Ode to Joy, Winter Wonderland, and Singin’ in the Rain – are then woven seamlessly into the action and suspense music that makes up the bulk of the rest of score. Long time aficionados of Kamen’s music will notice that the score is full of many of his idiosyncratic touches, from the chord progressions, to the way the strings are phrased, to the way he uses brass in short, punchy bursts. Kamen was a wholly unique composer with an unmistakable individual sound, and Die Hard is full of his personality.

Several cues stand out as being worthy of special note. “The Roof” underscores the scene where McClane sets off the building’s fire alarm system in an attempt to alert the authorities, and Kamen scores it with icy synth embellishments, moody metallic chimes, unnerving pizzicato, shrill piccolos, and hints of both Winter Wonderland and Ode to Joy. “The Fight” is for the brutal action sequence in which McClane fights with Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), one of Gruber’s lead henchmen, accompanied by pulsing electronics, pizzicato strings, blasting brasses playing a staccato statement of Winter Wonderland, and low end piano chords.

“Going After John Again” is a hair-raising piece which follows Gruber, his right hand man Karl (Godunov), and the henchmen as they pursue McClane through the top floors of the skyscraper, trying to find the man who killed Tony. The Cowboy Motif and McClane’s Motif combine with each other alongside a set of string pulses and edgy sustains, some cleverly integrated oboe writing, harsh timpani rhythms, and more hints of Singin’ in the Rain. The subsequent “Have A Few Laughs” – the scene where McClane wearily muses on how his Christmas turned out as he wriggles through a tight ventilation duct to escape from Karl – is characterized by electronic pulses, plucked strings, sleigh bells, and jittery flutes, all of which perfectly illustrate the dire straits of his situation.

“Welcome To The Party” features a frantic outburst of horns and sleighbells and cleverly worked fragments of Winter Wonderland for the scene where LAPD sergeant Al Powell (Veljohnson) is well and truly brought into the plot when McClane drops the body of a dead terrorist onto his patrol car from 20 storeys up! Later, “Assault On The Tower” is an 8-minute extravaganza that underscores the ultimately fruitless assault on Nakatomi Plaza by the LAPD SWAT team and the FBI. There’s a fantastic sequence beginning around the 2:00 mark that pits both the McClane Motif and Singin’ in the Rain against nervous snares and rolling, boiling brass, as the SWAT team begins its assault. The brief burst of hip-hop percussion at the beginning of the cue is for the moment when McClane’s limo driver Argyle (Devoreaux White), who has been sitting obliviously in the parking garage this entire time, realizes what’s going on and tries to escape.

“Bill Clay” underscores the scene where McClane and Gruber meet face to face for the first time – although Gruber is pretending to be a terrified Nakatomi employee in a ruse to gain McClane’s trust. Kamen uses shrill electronic textures and off-kilter percussion to subtly hint at Gruber’s duplicity, before silky strings reveal his actual identity. “I Had An Accident” is a clever piece, in that it allows the Cowboy Motif to move from McClane to Powell, as the weary cop gains McClane’s trust when he imparts a story of when he accidentally shot and killed an unarmed kid. Kamen uses the guitars here in the same way he used the saxophones for Danny Glover’s character in Lethal Weapon, drawing a portrait of a decent family man just doing his job.

The score’s finale comprises three cues – “Ode to Joy,” “The Battle,” and “Gruber’s Departure” – and it’s a powerhouse, by far the most volatile and explosive orchestral sequence in the film. “Ode to Joy” is when Kamen unleashes his inner Beethoven, using the piece in a celebratory, almost rapturous manner as the FBI cuts the power to the building and unwittingly help the terrorists achieve their goal. The 10-minute “The Battle” is quite superb, a monumental piece of action writing that places all five major themes into the context of a massive orchestral onslaught, as Karl and Gruber pursue McClane onto the roof of the building, where the hostages are waiting for a helicopter, and where the FBI are waiting to spring a trap full of fire and bullets. The intense sequence that begins at the 3:02 mark features some especially ferocious string writing underpinned by snares, hammered anvils, darting woodwinds, and roaring triplet-heavy brass. Eventually the action climaxes with McClane shooting Gruber, who tumbles through a plate glass window, and makes a desperate grab for Holly’s wrist, before eventually falling to his death with that now iconic shot of Alan Rickman’s arms flailing in the air, a look of horror etched on his face. Happy trails, kimosabe.

(As many people know, the film’s final four minutes were tracked with music from two other movies. The music heard when McClane and Powell see each other for the first time is from John Scott’s score for the 1987 film Man on Fire, and then when the apparently-dead henchman Karl re-appears for one last scare, the score uses music from James Horner’s score for Aliens).

Somewhat surprisingly the score for Die Hard was not released at the time the film came out, and fans of the music had to wait for 14 years – until 2002 – when Varèse Sarabande released a 3,000 copy limited edition album as part of their Collector’s Club. This is the soundtrack that is being reviewed here. The score was re-released again in 2011 by La-La Land Records as a limited edition 2-CD set, featuring all of Kamen’s music re-mastered, expanded, and in correct film order, along with several bonus tracks including John Scott’s piece from Man on Fire, the Vaughn Monroe performance of “Let It Snow” that plays over the end titles, and various pieces of source music and songs.

Although, as I mentioned earlier, I have never considered action to be Michael Kamen’s true musical forte, he was still great at it, and Die Hard represents one of the best examples of his writing in that style. The clever combination of the themes, the interpolation of the classical music and the songs, and the rich and vivid action set pieces are all outstanding, while the fascinating and wholly individualistic use of the orchestra is quintessential Kamen. While it’s probably true that the music does tend to get bogged down a tiny bit in its middle section with its plethora of slightly interchangeable suspense sequences, and would probably benefit from being programmed into a 45-50 minute presentation of the absolute highlights, Die Hard is nevertheless an iconic 1980s action score which demands attention.

Buy the Die Hard soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 2002 VARÈSE SARABANDE RELEASE
  • The Nakatomi Plaza (1:50)
  • Gruber’s Arrival (3:40)
  • John’s Escape / You Want Money? (5:52)
  • The Tower (1:49)
  • The Roof (3:57)
  • The Fight (1:07)
  • He Won’t Be Joining Us (3:53)
  • And If He Alters It? (2:39)
  • Going After John Again (4:33)
  • Have A Few Laughs (3:29)
  • Welcome To The Party (1:00)
  • TV Station / His Bag Is Missing (3:52)
  • Assault On The Tower (8:16)
  • John Is Found Out (5:03)
  • Attention Police (3:38)
  • Bill Clay (2:02)
  • I Had An Accident (2:37)
  • Ode To Joy (3:36)
  • The Battle (10:15)
  • Gruber’s Departure (1:56)
  • Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Instrumental Version (written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn) (2:00)
  • 2011 LA-LA LAND RELEASE
  • Main Title (0:38)
  • Terrorist Entrance (4:05)
  • The Phone Goes Dead/Party Crashers (1:51)
  • John’s Escape/You Want Money (6:00)
  • Wiring the Roof (1:51)
  • Fire Alarm (2:04)
  • Tony Approaches (1:41)
  • Tony and John Fight (1:11)
  • Santa (0:55)
  • He Won’t Be Joining Us (3:01)
  • And If He Alters It (2:39)
  • Going After John (4:29)
  • Have A Few Laughs/Al Powell Approaches (3:31)
  • Under the Table (1:55)
  • Welcome to the Party (1:09)
  • TV Station (2:47)
  • Holly Meets Hans (1:19)
  • Assault On the Tower (8:35)
  • John Is Found Out (5:03)
  • Attention Police (3:54)
  • Bill Clay (4:09)
  • Shooting the Glass (1:05)
  • I Had an Accident (2:37)
  • The Vault (3:07)
  • Message for Holly (1:07)
  • The Battle/Freeing the Hostages (6:53)
  • Helicopter Explosion and Showdown (4:00)
  • Happy Trails (1:12)
  • We’ve Got Each Other from ‘Man on Fire’ (written by John Scott) (1:56)
  • Let It Snow (written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, performed by Vaughn Monroe) (1:43)
  • Beethoven’s 9th – End Credits Excerpt (written by Ludwig Van Beethoven) (3:54)
  • The Nakatomi Plaza (1:45) – BONUS
  • Message for Holly (Film Version) (2:46) – BONUS
  • Gun in Cheek (1:01) – BONUS
  • Fire Hose(1:00) – BONUS
  • Ode to Joy (Alternate) (written by Ludwig Van Beethoven) (2:10) – BONUS
  • Let It Snow (Source) (written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, performed by Michael Kamen) (1:58) – BONUS
  • Winter Wonderland (Source) (written by Felix Bernard and Dick Smith) (1:25) – BONUS
  • Christmas in Hollis (written by Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jason Mizell, performed by RUN-DMC) (4:49) – BONUS

Running Time: 77 minutes 04 seconds (Varèse)
Running Time: 107 minutes 15 seconds (La La Land)

Varèse Sarabande VCL-0202-1004 (1988/2002)
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1188 (1988/2011)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Kamen. Orchestrations by Bruce Babcock, Chris Boardman, Philip Giffin and Fiachra Trench. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Christopher Brooks. Score produced by Michael Kamen and Stephen McLaughlin. 2002 Varese album produced by Nick Redman and Robert Townson. 2011 La La Land album produced by Nick Redman, Eric Lichtenfeld, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

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