Michael Kamen was born in 1948 in New York. He began piano at a young age, eventually learning oboe, clarinet and guitar. He studied the oboe at The Juilliard School in New York, and eventually formed his own band: New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. One of Kamen’s classmates and band members was Mark Snow (born Martin Fulterman), who went on to compose for TV. The band was a fusion of classical music and rock, featuring instruments mingling on both sides. They made several albums together starting in 1968. The group brought the composer/arranger/orchestrator side out of Kamen. While the band didn’t last for more than a few years, Kamen spread out to other rock work. In 1974 Kamen became the music director for David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs Tour, in which Kamen also performed. For Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall, Kamen provided orchestral arrangements for several songs. He eventually would work with Pink Floyd again on The Final Cut (1983) as keyboardist, arranger, conductor and producer, and provide orchestral arrangements for The Division Bell (1994).
His film work began with The Next Man (1976), and did several films until the end of the 1970s. But it was in the 1980s that his film career took off. He hit his stride in this decade, mainly with action films. In one of the few David Cronenberg films not scored by Howard Shore was The Dead Zone (1983). Kamen, like so many other composers, found his first director/collaborator with Terry Gilliam for Brazil (1985). Songwriter Eric Clapton brought Kamen onto the British mini-series Edge of Darkness in 1985, which won them a BAFTA for Original Television Music. For the fantasy film Highlander (1986), Kamen composed the score with some songs by Queen. A snippet of the score was later used as music for the New Line Cinema’s logo.
Continuing his streak of action hits, Kamen collaborated with director Richard Donner for Lethal Weapon (1987). The semi-jazz score featured Eric Clapton on guitar and David Sanborn on saxophone. Just like his old band that mixed classical and rock, Die Hard (1988) incorporated Beethoven Symphony No. 9 into the film score. That same year he worked with Terry Gilliam again for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. While the film was a box office flop, Kamen elevated the movie with a lively and inventive score. In 1989 he composed for 3 scores that followed his action hits. First was the crime drama Renegades (1989), his generally unmemorable turn for the Bond film Licence to Kill (1989) and a return to Richard Donner for Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) – which again featured Sanborn and Clapton.
The 1980s provided Kamen with many hits, the 1990s continued in the same fashion. He wrote some memorable pop songs with nominations and awards joining in. While director John McTiernan of the original film didn’t direct, Kamen scored Die Hard 2 (1990). 1991 kept Kamen busy with the box office flop Hudson Hawk, The Last Boy Scout and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Robin Hood featured the song (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, written by Kamen and performed by Bryan Adams. The song hit top charts around the world, winning a Grammy and nominated for an Oscar. The score and song were also nominated.
1992 saw the next installment of Lethal Weapon 3, and in 1993 Kamen composed the scores to The Last Action Hero (again with McTiernan) and The Three Musketeers (directed by Stephen Herek). The swashbuckling score to ‘Musketeers’ is very similar in tone to Robin Hood, some of the best recent scores in that genre. For Don Juan DeMarco (1994), Kamen used a bit of Spanish flavor and featured another hit song with Bryan Adams – Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman. The song was Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar nominated.
Kamen’s track record continued with Circle of Friends (1995) and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), again with McTiernan. Die Hard with a Vengeance was originally rejected and McTiernan tracked in cues from the past two films, with Kamen writing additional cues to fill the gaps. One of Kamen’s most known works was for Stephen Herek, perfectly fitting the goal of the New York Rock Ensemble – Mr. Holland’s Opus. His American Symphony from the film won him a Grammy for instrumental arrangement.
Following that, Kamen composed several scores like Jack (1996), 101 Dalmatians (1996) with Stephen Herek again. He also co-wrote the score to Event Horizon (1997) and wrote the theme and a few episodes of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998). After another composer’s score was rejected, Kamen stepped in to score the film at an incredibly fast pace. Old friend Mark Snow composed some additional themes for the film. Another one of Kamen’s top scores was for the animated film, The Iron Giant (1999). The score has more heart than some of his past films, as he seemed to escape the action film clichés.
2000 saw the return of Kamen to the rock stage, arranging and conducting the San Francisco Symphony on Metallica’s album S&M. Kamen also had a stand-out score in X-Men (2000), setting the mold for the superhero movies that followed. (Side note: for the score he credited himself as Michael K-Men). Kamen returned to HBO for the groundbreaking miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), for which he provided the main theme as well as the score.
In the late 1990s, Kamen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his scoring slowed down. While sick, he composed the scores to Open Range (2003), Back to Gaya (2004), and First Daughter (2004). Sadly, Kamen died at the age of 55 in November 2003. His last score was Back to Gaya, with First Daughter dedicated in his memory.
Obviously he worked a lot in the rock world, but Kamen also wrote several concert works. They include:Concerto For Saxophone (1990) for David Sanborn
Quintet for Brass (2001)
Concerto For Guitar (1998)
The New Moon In The Old Moon's Arms (2000)
Kamen also composed several pieces for the Olympic Games, including the 1996 Atlanta Games and 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
One of Kamen’s lasting legacies beyond his scores is the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, which he founded in 1996 after the film “as his commitment to the future of music education”. His knowledge of arranging and conducting got him his start, and featured prominently in his scores. Many of his scores have lived past their films, including the beloved Robin Hood overture. Michael Kamen’s spirit shines through his scores, from the tender moments of The Iron Giant to the action cues of the Die Hard series.