Home > Reviews > LICENCE TO KILL – Michael Kamen

LICENCE TO KILL – Michael Kamen


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The second – and last – James Bond film to star Timothy Dalton was 1989’s Licence to Kill, directed by John Glen from a screenplay by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum. I have long been of the opinion that Dalton was a hugely underrated Bond who should have been given more opportunities to succeed and develop his gritty version of the character, and that Licence to Kill is one of the best of the entire series. In it, Bond finds himself disavowed by British secret service agency MI6 and ‘going rogue’ after his best friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter, and his new bride Della are viciously attacked on their wedding day. The perpetrator is Franz Sanchez, a drug lord and ruthless cartel boss in a fictional Central American country; seeking personal vengeance, Bond teams up with Pam Bouvier, an ex Army-pilot with a vendetta against Sanchez of her own, and crosses paths with two very different members of Sanchez’s entourage: the beautiful Lupe Lamora, and the sadistic henchman Dario. The film co-stars Robert Davi, Carey Lowell, Talisa Soto, and a very young Benicio del Toro, but unfortunately the film was not a commercial success; adjusted for inflation. It remains the lowest-grossing Bond film of all time, something which, sadly, hastened to the end of Dalton’s tenure and his subsequent replacement with Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye in 1995.

The score for Licence to Kill was composed by the UK-based American composer Michael Kamen, who was approached to score the film instead of John Barry, who was unable to score it due to him being in recovery from life-saving throat surgery at the time. Kamen, who was a hot commodity for action scores at the time following his successes in the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon franchises, became only the sixth composer to score a Bond film, and the first person other than Barry to score one since Bill Conti and For Your Eyes Only in 1981. But, of course, Bond soundtracks must always start with the song, and this time around there are two of them: “Licence to Kill,” performed by Gladys Knight over the opening titles, and “If You Asked Me To,” performed by Patti LaBelle over the end credits. Initially Eric Clapton (who collaborated with Kamen on Lethal Weapon) and legendary guitarist Vic Flick were asked to write and perform a theme song together, which was to have been based on Monty Norman’s classic Bond theme, but for reasons unknown this collaboration fell through, and songwriters Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, Walter Afanasieff, and Diane Warren ended up contributing instead.

The Walden-Cohen-Afanasieff song, “Licence to Kill,” features a riff on the horn line from the classic song from Goldfinger, and is a quintessential Bond power ballad belted out with aplomb by Knight. However, for some reason I have always preferred Diane Warren’s song “If You Asked Me To,” which is silkier, smoother, and more contemporary, with enticing smoky vocals by Patti LaBelle, and a luscious string arrangement under the main melody courtesy of composer Aaron Zigman. Interestingly – but not unsurprisingly, considering Kamen’s lack of involvement in either song – neither of the song melodies appear in Kamen’s underscore, making this soundtrack one of the only Bond scores where this is the case. Normally, I would consider this to be something that hurts a Bond soundtrack, considering that the two musical elements are usually deeply intertwined, but for some reason that isn’t the case here. Kamen’s modernistic orchestral writing stands well on its own, and the two disparate sounds complement each other well despite sharing no melodic material.

‘Modernistic’ really is a great word to describe Kamen’s work. Other than a few quotes of the main James Bond theme and several of the associated John Barry 007 themes, there is no similarity between this Bond score and anything that went before it; instead, the score is wholly rooted in Kamen’s action writing of the period, which of course includes Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, but also scores like Edge of Darkness, especially with its judicious use of electric guitars. The score is presented not as individual cues but as six lengthy suites ranging from just over 2 minutes to just over 9, and is out of chronological order, so unless you are familiar with the film itself, none of the thematic or dramatic progression of the music will be apparent. This does unfortunately result in the soundtrack album seeming a little haphazard, but the quality of the music itself more than makes up for any shortcomings resulting from the presentation. It also means that the score is ripe for a more comprehensive and intelligently-sequenced expansion.

“Pam” is a series of extended explorations of the music associated with Carey Lowell’s character Pam Bouvier, a tough-as-nails helicopter pilot and ex CIA-asset who becomes Bond’s ally in the quest to take down Sanchez. Much of the music has a Latin flair, no doubt to emphasize the film’s tropical setting, and Kamen uses both electric and acoustic guitars alongside the large and beefy orchestra. The hesitant melody that begins at 1:50 is the love theme for James and Pam, a gentle pluck on the guitars accompanied by a wash of strings that pre-dates and foreshadows the music Kamen would write for Don Juan de Marco in 1995. Throughout the cue there are a few bursts of John Barry thematic goodness, and a few brief explosions of action material, but mostly this is low-key and intimate stuff that is really attractive.

“James & Felix on Their Way to Church” opens with a rumbling drive of action and a blast of the Bond theme, before quickly settling down into a series of aggressive orchestral thrusts that move between percussion-driven tension and more expansive statements for low, menacing brass and swirling string writing. The cue’s unexpectedly charming and romantic ending leads into the subsequent “His Funny Valentine,” which is actually another piece of dark action and suspense writing which stands at odds with the incongruous cue title. The recurring idea for the suave drug lord Franz Sanchez is introduced here at around the 30 second mark, an array of sultry flutters on an acoustic guitar backed by string textures and some almost subliminal synths that add a subtle hint of menace to his character. The growling brass and woodwind textures that dominate the second half of the cue leave you in no doubt as to Sanchez’s ruthlessness.

“Sanchez is in The Bahamas/Shark Fishing” is a brief but brilliant action cue for the set piece where Bond and Felix commandeer a small plane and use a tension cable to somehow pluck Sanchez out of the sky as he tries to escape in his own plane – thereby setting in motion the back-and-forth revenge plot that dominates the rest of the film. Kamen uses blaring Barry-style horns and trombones, as well as several glorious statements of the Bond theme, to enliven his fast-paced and guitar-heavy orchestral action music. The subsequent “Ninja” is an extended action cue which partially underscores Bond’s encounter with two ninjas who turn out to be agents of the Hong Kong Secret Service on their own separate mission to take down Sanchez and his drug lab. Kamen’s music here is aggressive and percussion-heavy, and makes prominent use of metallic textures and wooden blocks, giving the orchestra a different and distinctly oriental timbre; there is also some terrific and complicated brass writing, and some more undulating and snake-like woodwind ideas.

The longest cue is the conclusive “Licence Revoked,” a nine-minute amalgam of several action highlights. The excitable flurry of brass at 0:37 underscores the moment when Bond directly disobeys ‘M’ and goes rogue, escaping from the British consulate compound in Key West bent on retribution. Thereafter, Kamen offers several unusual takes on the familiar Bond themes – including moments where he re-orchestrates part of it for elegant-sounding woodwinds – and surrounds then with numerous statements of both Pam’s guitar material and Sanchez’s guitar material, as well as some terrific moments of high energy kineticism. The echoing brass just before the 6:00 mark underscores the final mano-a-mano fight between Bond and Sanchez on the back of a speeding big-rig tanker, as well as the threat of a bazooka rocket launched by one of Sanchez’s minions. It all builds to a dramatic climax of screaming brass, swirling strings, deliciously bombastic chords, and a feisty final statement of the Bond theme.

Two more songs – “Wedding Party” performed by Ivory and “Dirty Love” performed by Tim Feehan – round out the album, but can be easily skipped. The former is a piece of tropical calypso fluff that James, Felix, and Della dance to at the wedding reception, while the latter is a more grungy-sounding rock piece that is heard during the Barrelhead Bar sequence where Bond and Pam meet for the first time, just before a brawl breaks out and Cary Lowell hits Benicio Del Toro over the head with a giant plastic swordfish.

James Bond music purists have long been known to consider Licence to Kill something of an anomaly, and it is often listed in ‘worst Bond music’ lists alongside Marvin Hamlisch’s disco travesty The Spy Who Loved Me, Bill Conti’s 80s pop score for For Your Eyes Only, and whatever the hell Èric Serra’s Goldeneye was. However, I personally think that lumping this score in with those others does Kamen a disservice; clearly, it’s not a patch on anything that John Barry did before him (or that David Arnold did after him, for that matter), but anyone who has an affinity for Kamen’s 1980s and 90s action writing will glean some satisfaction from the way he was able to combine his own style with the jazzy Bond sound without losing the integrity of either. As I am one of those people, I find Licence to Kill to be a rewarding listen.

Buy the Licence to Kill soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Licence to Kill (written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, and Walter Afanasieff, performed by Gladys Knight) (5:13)
  • Wedding Party (written by Jimmy Duncan and Phillip Brennan, performed by Ivory) (3:53)
  • Dirty Love (written by Steve Dubin and Jeff Pescetto, performed by Tim Feehan) (3:45)
  • Pam (3:50)
  • If You Asked Me To (written by Diane Warren, performed by Patti LaBelle) (3:58)
  • James & Felix on Their Way to Church (3:53)
  • His Funny Valentine (3:26)
  • Sanchez is in The Bahamas/Shark Fishing (2:06)
  • Ninja (6:03)
  • Licence Revoked (9:11)

Running Time: 45 minutes 18 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-6307 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Kamen. Performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Original James Bond theme by Monty Norman and John Barry. Recorded and mixed by Dick Lewzey. Edited by Andrew Glen. Album produced by Michael Kamen and Joel Sill.

  1. July 19, 2019 at 11:17 am

    Excellent review, sir. This has always been one of my favorite Bond Scores.

  2. March 14, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for this piece. I heartily agree with you on all points and would love to see a complete release of the Kamen score, including a solid package that gives this unique and strong Bond film its due.

  3. October 10, 2022 at 9:20 am

    One of my favorite Bond scores ever. Conti’s is right up there too. Great review, thanks.

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