July 29, 2012

The Importance of Action Movie Music

The music score is one of the most important and underappreciated elements of a film.

The music in a film tends to go unnoticed by so many film-goers, which is a great shame as without it; films would lack the emotion and tension required. A musical cue can tell so much more than a line of dialogue.

The first album I ever got was the score to Superman by John Williams. That introduced me to the Wagnerian Leitmotif; where a character or story element has a particular piece of music which you can use to identify them. The Superman theme is heroic, bombastic and arguably the greatest film theme of all time. The Imperial March is militaristic and immediately shows that the Empire is in control.

Lalo Schifrin has a very distinctive sound. He created the Mission: Impossible theme, Dirty Harry, Bullitt, Enter the Dragon and even the music to Rush Hour. He defined cool in terms of film music; it was very much of its time but even so, I still listen to these scores regularly.

To me, the one man that defined action movie music in the 80’s (and some of the 90’s) was Michael Kamen. He did the music to Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Action Jackson, The Last Boy Scout and the classic Highlander. These are just a few of the amazing scores he provided in an all too brief career. He could have bombastic excitement one moment then a hint of humour in the next.

I will never forget his score to Die Hard; the subtle theme tune which sticks in your head but also the use of Ode to Joy which is used at the perfect time in the film.

Kamen’s score to Lethal Weapon is up there with Die Hard in terms of iconic music. The sadness of Martin Riggs’ theme changing to a lighter tone as the film series progresses.

Kamen’s action scores used guitar and saxophone to great effect; speaking of which, why do we not get saxophone music in our scores anymore? It’s still a great instrument!

I miss Kamen’s music desperately from movies, his style of music alas is from the bygone era of action movies the like of which we probably won’t see or hear of again.

Another of the all-time greats is Jerry Goldsmith. So many classic scores: Gremlins, Total Recall, The Omen, The Edge, First Knight, Rambo, Basic Instinct, The Mummy, Alien, Poltergeist, Legend and Chinatown to name but a few.

Mr. Goldsmith (like John Williams) could always come up with a great theme tune. Who doesn’t get a shiver down the spine hearing the Rambo theme especially the track “Escape from Torture” from Part 2? He was especially great at doing action themes but was also comfortable doing quieter music.

The theme from Basic Instinct was the best thing about the movie; slow and sexy yet with a hint of potential threat. I am always listening to his scores keeping his memory alive. Jerry Goldsmith sadly passed away in 2004 and cinema is all the worse for it. Rest in Peace, sir.

Basil Poledouris is another favourite composer: Robocop, On Deadly Ground, Conan, Starship Troopers, The Hunt For Red October, etc.

Once again, great at creating action themes; I especially love Klendathu Drop from Starship Troopers and the main theme from On Deadly Ground. His music from Robocop is iconic with an almost Western feel to it and let’s face it, Robo really is a futuristic cowboy. Mr. Poledouris passed away in 2006 but will never be forgotten.

So who is the best action movie composer today? The Legend that is HANS ZIMMER; no one does it like him (Although many have tried since). My personal favourite scores of his are The Rock, Crimson Tide, Broken Arrow and Gladiator.

Crimson Tide gives me the same shiver down the spine that the Superman theme does. The way it starts off quietly then builds up to a spectacular finish is, to use an overused word, epic.

The Rock blew me away; I’d never heard an action score like it before. Everyone can talk smack about Michael Bay all they want but The Rock is one of the best action flicks you’ll ever see.

Just when you think Hans’ style is so recognisable then he comes out with something that sounds completely different from his other work. His score to M:I 2 didn’t sound like anything he’d done before and is another great soundtrack, especially the motorbike chase music (Bare Island).

His music to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons was the best thing about the films as well; listen to the track Chevalier de Sangreal and tell me that isn’t a work of genius.

Now here’s is the controversial bit; as much as I enjoy the track “Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight, I found the score to actually be disappointing. Hans introduced a great theme tune in Batman Begins then didn’t use it for the sequel. I understand why but it’s one of the reasons I still prefer Begins as a film.

The score to TDK does have a chaotic nightmarish sound to it and I appreciate that; I just prefer my scores to be a bit more… tuneful. He then came back with the score to Inception which was classic Hans.

There are many other score-masters working out there just now: John Ottman, John Debney, Trevor Rabin, Alan Silvestri and Brian Tyler to name but a few.

JOHN OTTMAN did the score to the VERY underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Superman Returns, The Losers, X-Men 2 and (a personal favourite) the amazing orchestral version of the “Halloween theme” in Halloween H20. If you are looking to buy the Halloween H20 score it is known as “Portrait of Terror”; I believe this was due to some copyright thing going on at the time.

If you haven’t seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, just go out and buy it immediately; you won’t regret it. The movie and the score are classics.

Ottman did a fabulous job following up from John Williams with his version of the Superman theme in 2006’s Superman Returns. He kept the original themes while creating a newer, modern sound. I still think they should do that with the new Superman film rather than trying to come up with something new; let’s face it, whoever tries a new Superman theme is screwed before they even start. Williams’ theme will never be bettered.

A lot of scores these days have lost the thematic elements that I loved so much, but times and tastes change. There are still a few great composers out there who know how to create excitement and theme tunes.

BRIAN TYLER has only been on the scene for a few years but has really made quite the impact for me; the first time he came to my attention was with his Children of Dune score which was beautifully done. His most recent work includes The Expendables, Rambo, Eagle Eye, Fast & Furious and Battle: Los Angeles. Tyler has the gift of creating really epic sounding action movie music, bombastic and exciting but always tuneful and interesting. Every man NEEDS the score to The Expendables; it puts hair on your chest dammit!

TREVOR RABIN actually created my all time favourite action movie score with CON AIR; that guitar theme tune is just so righteously epic, it made me want to grow my hair long and wear a white string vest (I didn’t though because that would just be weird). Rabin did the score with Mark Mancina (Speed) and I still listen to it every day 14 years later (Is it REALLY that long?)

He also provided the scores to Bad Company, The Sixth Day, Deep Blue Sea, Enemy of the State, Armageddon and more.

ALAN SILVESTRI is a legend like Jerry Goldsmith; where to start? Predator, The Mummy Returns, Beowulf, Forrest Gump, What Lies Beneath, Volcano, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Avengers (2012), The Quick & the Dead, The Abyss, Delta Force and of course Back To The Future. He has done many more; this is just a small selection. Silvestri can do any genre of music from wistful (Forrest Gump) to Balls-To-The-Wall action (Predator) with ease. I think I own pretty much all of his scores or at least most of them.

Ok I’m nearly done, stay with me kids: JOHN DEBNEY: I became a fan of Mr. Debney when I saw the Jean Claude Van Damme movie Sudden Death in the 90’s (Great flick btw so check it out!). Another great action score composer, he did an AMAZING job with Predators and Iron Man 2.

Debney did The Passion of the Christ score as well which was spectacular, especially the track “Resurrection”.

So there we have it, an introduction to the history of the action movie score. Remember kids, anytime you’re watching a film, think about the time and effort that goes into providing the score as a film just isn’t the same without it.

About the Author

Eoin Friel
Eoin Friel
I grew up watching JCVD, Sly and Arnold destroy bad guys, blow things up and spew one-liners like it's a fashion statement. Action is everything I go to the movies for and the reason I came up with this site is to share my love for the genre with everyone.



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