By 1990, Michael Kamen was at a major crossroad in a career that had, courtesy of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, crowned him as the freshest voice in action film scoring. With Lethal Weapon 2 and Die Hard 2 recently completed, Kamen must have felt a need to tear into new territory, since both films were a bit of a mixed blessing: he was attached to a pair of summer blockbusters in the years 1989 and 1990, respectively, both mandated the re-use of familiar themes, and License to Kill - the new James Bond flick - was still a revisitation of the big action music he was being courted to write.
The Krays, a score barely released on CD and LP (and with blasted dialogue snippets) gave Kamen a unique project to score dark characters while writing intimate, low-key music, largely for synth and small jazz combo; but as he describes in the included documentary for this DVD, he had wanted to write a concerto for some time, using inspired ideas that he'd filed away while working on film, rock, and fusion projects.
Kamen's finished work, Concerto for Saxophone, originally appeared on a 1990 Warner Bros. CD - no doubt possible because the Lethal Weapon albums did brisk business - while the Concerto doc and performance videos appeared on a Pioneer laserdisc in 1991, before being reissued on DVD in 1999.
Michael Kamen is one of the few film composers to appear frequently on DVD as a lead or supporting player: conductor on the orchestral session for Eric Clapton: 24 Nights (1991) and Roger Waters: The Wall (Live in Berlin) (1990); as conductor and bubbly emcee for Metallica: S&M with the San Francisco Symphony (1999) taped concert and in the documentary & extras, and in this unique NTSC release, converted from an original PAL video master.
Pioneer's DVD only contains full performances of the three Movements (28:28). The doc, however, does contain brief extracts of the contemporary music tracks that filled out the 1990 CD (heavily imbued with stylistic nuances from his melodic Lethal and Krays material), and the concept is more music video than concert program. It's a jarring approach for those who've conjured their own images and meaning from Kamen's Concerto over the years, and the decision to interweave a mostly amber-tinted montage of a romantic couple separated in New York City, plus a kid with a model airplane may come off as, well, precious, and dated.
The narrative structure of the 1st Movement is more 'welcome to NYC,' and the images only click into place when it's the iconic action shots within a large city, or near the end, as the boy takes his finished balsa plane and watches it take flight. Intercut are shots from a repositioned orchestra, sax soloist David Sanborn, and conductor Kamen in a black-curtained soundstage, with the camera mostly tracking around the musicians. A few static shots are used, but it's all subliminally overlaid between the oddball narratives, and the musical performances feel like partial bits taped as cutaways for the video threads, and not the other way around.
The 2nd Movement deals with a woman by a makeup table thinking of her imminent night of heady romance, with a montage of the couple shown dancing, spinning, disrobing, and ultimately engage in some serious whoopee. After some panties, cheeks, and boobery, the visuals move towards contemplative close-up of the woman, and then a grandfather fishing with a boy. The assumption is the music captures flickering passions, simple joys, and tight familial bonds, but whether or not the applied montages work is totally subjective for the viewer.
Visuals for the final Movement feel more arbitrary, as we weave through images of a gymnast, iconic shots of NYC, vintage toys, swathes of airborne birds, kites, and a sunset. Brief snippets of the musicians pop up once in a while - mostly during Sanborn's solos - and the Movement concludes with the lost city couple finally reunited, and a brief evocation of Godfrey Reggio-styled, city-on-the-move montages. Kamen's "Sasha" track from the CD plays of the End Credits.
The CD's remaining cues - "Helen Claire," "Zoe," "Sandra," and "Waiting for Daddy" from Brazil - are briefly excerpted (mostly with shots of Kamen and his daughters) in the superb doc (26:17) that actually precedes the performance videos, and includes appearances by Eric Clapton, Ray Cooper, and brief comments by David Gilmour. The more interesting material comes from George Harrison, who covers Kamen's early years and first scores for the ex-Beatles' Handmade film production company, while Kamen also talks about some early scores, including John Waters' Polyester.
Better still are details on the creation of the Concerto, with complimentary thoughts from Sanborn, and lots of behind the scenes footage from early practice work in Kamen's home, rehearsals sessions, and some recorded takes. Anyone familiar with Kamen's Frequency DVD commentary knows how much he loved to talk music in a very accessible and engaging style, and it's easy to see why Kamen, a kid who grew up with lots of music and strong family ties, wanted to educate people not about music, but creating & performing music for the sheer pleasure of it. Harrison recalls the composer's likeable personality during their first meeting, and Sanborn describes his own drunken meeting with Kamen during a recording session that led to their longtime friendship and multiple collaborations.
The doc and performances are somewhat time-limited by the original running time of the old hour-long laserdisc, and the music video narratives haven't aged all that well; perhaps it's time the video masters are dusted off, and a new version should be created with an option to view the performances separated from the videos, and in a more aggressive Dolby 5.1 mix.
Concerto for Saxophone is now 15 years old, but Kamen fans will find the music and the man well represented in this affectionate production. In light of Kamen's passing in 2003, it's rather bittersweet to see him at the beginning of what should have been a much longer career, so this release is a rare testament as to why he will remain one of the most notable film composers of his generation.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan