Tom Jolliffe looks at a golden period in action film scores and some of the maestros who composed them…
What is the golden age of action movies? This is of course a rhetorical question. It’s undoubtedly the 1980s. A time of such unique style and flair. Tall, bold, brash, silly, sometimes ironic. It was a world away from the grittier dishes of the previous decade. The 90s would become increasingly concerned with the rise of style and begin to push new trends in editing (which in the 00s would come to be known as greedy farts). There’s an inherent simplicity to the framing and cutting of most 80s action classics, but a visionary era defined thanks to directors like Richard Donner, Paul Verhoeven, James Cameron and John McTiernan (to name a few). to name a few).
Eighties music was generally great, personified by individuality and instantly recognizable styles. You hear a particular composer and you immediately know who it is. A uniformity began to spread in the 90s with the slightly interchangeable scores of Trevor Rabin, Mark Mancina, Hans Zimmer (often in Bruckheimer films). As that decade ended in the new century, a few dated trends drifted in and out of the action genre, such as the techno/drum and bass score.
Many action scores these days sound indistinguishable from the 3-4 styles that studios often go for. You have the MCU catalog which, just like the other elements, seems to follow the formula. There’s also the Hans Zimmer style bwwwwwwaaaaaahhh which the main man certainly does with aplomb, but actually has many imitators. There is, however, a recent neo-retro trend that is quite appealing, but still, nothing that stands out with the flair and unforgettable themes of the 80s action era.
So who were these songwriter gods who stepped up their action movies to the unforgettable legacy that so many of them have? Let’s check out a few. ..
There’s a sad reason why some of these great recognizable composers still don’t circulate in modern cinema. They sadly left the mortal reel, leaving behind an immortal musical legacy. Michael Kamen, accustomed to themes of immortality, has left his mark on countless classic films of the genre (and other genres too). His work from the 80s is particularly brilliant, where his distinct and graceful music perfectly counteracts and brings poetry to the on-screen violence.
Kamen’s most iconic action work has arrived lethal weapon, teaming up brilliantly with Michael Clapton. A score with distinct guitar and sax parts, it beautifully conveyed the dynamic between Riggs and Murtaugh and the escalation of action and drama. Intense when needed and shrewd throughout. Instantly recognizable. It wasn’t just that lethal weapon franchise either. Kamen has produced many distinctive action scores in films like truck stop, die hard and more. However, his best work may have been overshadowed by the accompanying Queen soundtrack. Kamen’s own clues and collaborations with the band for mountaineer are exceptional.
Sadly no longer with us, Jerry Goldsmith’s resume is compelling. In his time, Goldsmith was in the front row, along with John Williams. Williams is actually one of the last bastions of his era of composers (and of course as instantly identifiable as perhaps any composer). Goldsmith could effortlessly switch between genres and was able to shift from understated to bombastic with ease.
Goldsmith made several big action scores throughout the decade and beyond, but would also be hugely associated with the Rambo franchise. The first film has a great theme used with subtlety and tinged with melancholy. The sequels made everything better and Goldsmith followed suit, beefing up those films and making them bolder and sturdier for the huge sets of Rambo II and III. He ends the decade with Total recall who had an unforgettable score too.
James Horner (RIP) could do it all. He created wonderful fantasy scores that perfectly propelled the epic quests of movies like Krull and willow. He would later find huge critical acclaim scoring top films like Titanic (doesn’t get much bigger than that of course).
Horner’s action work has always had a sense of experimental fantasy. Steel drums you say? Why not, and put some sax on top. Very rhythmic and daring, films like 48 hours and Commando were given the gift of slightly unconventional but beautifully appropriate music. Horner’s action work elevates and propels the pace and action.
The late (sigh) Basil Poledouris created bold themes, often backed by thunderous percussion. His epic work in Conan the Barbarian is one of the best orchestral scores of all time. While most at the time tried to evoke John Williams in their action fantasy works, Poledouris delved further into B-era imagery of the 50s and 60s for a grounding, then elevated music at grand heights. The score here takes an epic journey mirroring the film, and it’s also varied. The love scene is different stylistically and in its instrumental composition from the orgy sequence for example, but it still has a consistent undertone.
Poledouris was equally pompous in RoboCop, adding some layers of mechanical synth to fit the sci-fi part of the action-heavy story. It was a time when composers needed and wanted to have bold, recognizable themes. RoboCop definitely has that. You will never forget it. Many times I found myself humming the RoboCop theme to myself absentmindedly.
SEE ALSO: The best fantasy film scores of the 80s
Predator took a simple concept. It’s a fusion of action and horror that throws a group of mercenaries into the jungle and a titular alien enemy takes them down one by one. It should never have worked as well as it did, but it did for several reasons. It was impeccably put together by John McTiernan (supported on the action sets by stunt legend Craig R. Baxley, a great action director in his own right). It had a great cast and pacing, brilliant design (second time around with the now iconic Predators design) and more. Then there is the music of Alan Silvestri.
Predator the score is eerie and dreadful if necessary, and booming rhythmic if necessary too. The cross-genre nature of the film needed to be reflected in the score, and Silvestri did that brilliantly. He will always be associated with his excellent work in Back to the futurebut he also has a strong acting heritage, including The Delta Force and Romanticize the stone.
John Carpenter’s place in horror legend isn’t limited to the director’s pantheon. He is also a legendary genre composer. Carpenter didn’t particularly start out as a horror specialist either, but Halloween took him up several levels somehow Assault on Compound 13 didn’t quite have.
Carpenter’s work in the 80s was eclectic, flipping genre cinema and doing action, horror, fantasy and even a dash of science fiction. His action scores are as effective and memorable as his horror works. He often collaborated or shared duties with Alan Howarth, but films like Big problem in little China, Escape from New York and They live have lots of dread synth atmosphere and mechanical beats that keep the beat going.
Bill Conti’s legacy as a composer will always be assured through his work in the Rocky franchise. His now legendary themes have become synonymous with the Italian stallion. They are the epitome of uplifting and majestic music.
In the 80s, while working on a few of the sequels (pausing the fourth with Vince DiCola’s synth styles taking over), Conti also worked with Sly a few times, most notably on a drama of action in prison. lock up. The film had shades of Rocky throughout with Conti certainly bringing some of the sensibility there. Conti has also thrown his hat into the action fantasy realm, offering a star wars-inspired, but still unique Conti score for masters of the universe. For all the film’s flaws, it’s blessed with not only a great villain, but a barnstorming score as well.
One of the most unique, instantly recognizable 80s themes has entered Beverly Hills Cop. Axel’s theme was not only a hit on screen, but Harold Faltermeyer’s play rose to the top of the pop charts in a number of countries (surpassing them in some regions). The upbeat, funky synths screamed the 80s but gave the film a distinct voice, which carried over into the inevitable sequel.
Faltermeyer was prolific in the 80s (Superior gun, Tango and money, Fletch), in high demand as the producers approached composers outside the usual circles and from the pop world on occasion. Artists like Tangerine Dream, Queen, Mark Isham, Vince DiCola, Jan Hammer and Wang Chung weren’t from the same world as conventional orchestra composers, that was for sure. Faltermeyer’s work experienced a sort of resurrection thanks to Top Gun: Maverickits themes from the original being brought back to life and slightly modernized.
Who is your favorite action composer from the 1980s? Let us know on our social media @flickeringmyth….
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled for 2022, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) , Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you will ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/