Tom Jolliffe looks at a golden period in action movie 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 flair and style. Big, bold, brash, silly, sometimes ironic. It was a world away from grittier fare from the previous decade. The 90s would increasingly become pre-occupied with ramping up the style even further and beginning to push new trends in editing (that in the 00s would be known as avid farts). There’s an inherent simplicity to the framing and cutting of most 80s action classics, but a definite visionary era thanks to directors like Richard Donner, Paul Verhoeven, James Cameron and John McTiernan (to name a few).
Music in the 80s was generally great, personified by individuality and instantly recognisable styles. You hear a particular composer and you know who it is immediately. A uniformity did begin to spread across the 90’s with the slightly interchangeable Trevor Rabin, Mark Mancina, Hans Zimmer scores (often in Bruckheimer films). At the end of that decade into the new century a few dated trends drifted in and out of the action genre, such as the techno/drum and bass score.
Nowadays, a lot of action scores all sound indistinguishable from the 3-4 styles studios often go for. You’ve got the MCU catalogue which, much like the other elements, seems to follow formula. There’s also the Hans Zimmer bwwwwwaaaaaaahhh style which the main man does with aplomb certainly, but indeed has many imitators. There is however a recent neo-retro trend which is fairly pleasing, but still, nothing that stands out with the flair and unforgettable themes of the 80’s action era.
So who were these composing Gods who ramped up their action films to the unforgettable legacy many of these have? Let’s check some out. ..
There’s a sad reason why some of those great recognisable composers don’t still circulate in modern cinema. They have sadly left the mortal coil, leaving behind an immortal musical legacy. Michael Kamen, no stranger to themes of immortality, scored countless classic films in the genre (and other genres too). His 80’s oeuvre is particularly brilliant, where his distinct and graceful music perfectly countered and brought poetry to on screen violence.
Kamen’s most iconic action work came in Lethal Weapon, pairing brilliantly with Michael Clapton. A score with distinct guitar parts and some sax, it beautifully conveyed the dynamic between Riggs and Murtaugh and the escalating action and drama. Intense when it needed to be and artful throughout. Instantly recognisable. It wasn’t merely that Lethal Weapon franchise either. Kamen produced plenty of distinctive action scores in films like Roadhouse, Die Hard and more. His best work however, perhaps got overshadowed by the accompanying Queen soundtrack. Kamen’s own cues and his collaborations with the band for Highlander are exceptional.
Sadly no longer with us, Jerry Goldsmith’s CV is imperious. Among his era, Goldsmith was top tier, up with John Williams. Williams is one of the last bastions of his era of composers in fact (and of course as instantly identifiable as perhaps any composer). Goldsmith could effortlessly flit between genres and was able to shift between low key and bombastic with ease.
Goldsmith did several great action scores throughout the decade and beyond, but will also be hugely associated with the Rambo franchise. The first film has a great theme used with subtlety and tinged with melancholy. The sequels upped everything and Goldsmith followed suit, beefing those films and making them bolder and more robust for the huge set pieces of Rambo II and III. He ended the decade with Total Recall which had an unforgettable score also.
James Horner (R.I.P) could do it all. He crafted wonderful fantasy scores which perfectly propelled the epic quests of films like Krull and Willow. Later he would find massive critical acclaim scoring top tier films like Titanic (doesn’t get much bigger than that of course).
Horner’s action work though always had a sense of experimental whimsy. Steel drums you say? Why the hell not, and let’s put in some sax on top. Highly rhythmic and bold, films like 48 Hours and Commando were given the gift of slightly unconventional but beautifully fitting music. Horner’s action work elevates and propels the pace and action.
The late (sigh) Basil Poledouris created bold themes, often backed by thundering percussion. His epic work in Conan The Barbarian is one of the all time great orchestral scores. While most at the time were trying to evoke John Williams in their fantasy action works, Poledouris delved back further to the 50s and 60s era B pictures for a grounding, and then lifted the music to grandiose heights. The score here takes an epic journey mirroring the film, and it’s also varied as well. The love scene feels different stylistically and in its instrumental makeup to the orgy sequence for example, but they still have a consistent undertone.
Poledouris was similarly bombastic in RoboCop, adding some mechanical synth layers to fit the sci-fi part of the action heavy story. This was an era where composers were required, and wanted, to have bold recognisable themes. RoboCop certainly has that. You will never forget it. Many is the time I’ve found myself humming the RoboCop theme to myself absentmindedly.
SEE ALSO: The Greatest 80s Fantasy Film Scores
Predator took a simple concept. It’s an action horror fusion that throws a group of mercenaries into the jungle and has a titular alien foe pick them off one by one. It should never have worked as well as it did, but did so for several reasons. It was impeccably put together by John McTiernan (backed in the action set pieces by stunt legend Craig R. Baxley, a great action director in his own right). It had a superb cast and a great pace, brilliant design (second time of asking with the Predators now iconic design) and more. Then there’s the music by Alan Silvestri.
Predator’s score is ominous and dread filled when needed, and boomingly rhythmic when needed too. The cross-genre nature of film needed to be reflected in the score, and Silvestri did this beautifully. He’ll always be associated with his great work in Back to the Future, but he has a strong action legacy too, including The Delta Force and Romancing the Stone.
John Carpenter’s place in horror legend isn’t just confined to the directors pantheon. He’s a legendary genre composer too. Carpenter didn’t particularly begin as a horror specialist either, but Halloween sprung him up several levels in a way Assault on Precinct 13 hadn’t quite.
Carpenter’s work in the 80s was eclectic, flipping across genre cinema and doing action, horror, fantasy and even a dash of sci-fi. His action scores are as effective and memorable as his horror works. He’d often collaborate or share duties with Alan Howarth, but films like Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York and They Live have plenty of synth dread atmosphere and mechanical beats which keep the pace up.
Bill Conti’s legacy as a composer will always be assured thanks to 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 80’s, whilst working on a couple of the sequels (taking a break on the fourth with the synth stylings of Vince DiCola taking over), Conti also worked with Sly a few more times, notably on prison set action drama Lock Up. The film had shades of Rocky throughout with Conti certainly bringing some of the sensibility there. Conti also threw his hat into the fantasy action realm, providing a Star Wars-inspired, yet still uniquely Conti score for Masters of the Universe. For all the flaws the film had, it’s blessed not only with a great villain, but also a barnstorming score.
One of the most unique themes of the 80s, instantly recognisable, came in Beverly Hills Cop. Axel’s theme wasn’t just an on screen success, but Harold Faltermeyer’s piece shot up to near the top of the pop charts in a number of countries (topping them in some regions). The upbeat, funky synths screamed 80s but gave the film a distinct voice, which was carried into the inevitable sequel.
Faltermeyer was prolific in the 80s (Top Gun, Tango and Cash, Fletch), in high demand as producers approached composers out of the usual circles and from the pop world on occasions. Artists like Tangerine Dream, Queen, Mark Isham, Vince DiCola, Jan Hammer and Wang Chung weren’t from the same worlds as conventional orchestral composers, that was for sure. Faltermeyer’s work has had something of a resurrection thanks to Top Gun: Maverick, his themes from the original being brought back to life and slightly modernised.
Who is your favourite 1980s action composer? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth….
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 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 info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.