Soundtrack Review: Licence to Kill

Composed and Conducted by: Michael Kamen

After cold war thrillers and super-weapon plots, James Bond took a break to battle criminals in Licence to Kill. After drug lord Sanchez (played by Robert Davi), feeds Timothy Dalton Bond’s CIA friend Felix Leiter to the sharks, 007 goes on a hunt for revenge. A radical, dark departure, the movie did not necessarily bomb, but underperformed in America. Not helping was some tough summer competition from Batman and the latest installments of Star Trek and Indiana Jones. The James Bond series would go hiatus for six years, the longest break between entries it would ever experience, while the producers at Eon tried to take a step back and figure out a way to rejuvenate the franchise.

John Barry was going to score Licence to Kill, but had to step out due to throat surgery. Stepping in was Michael Kamen, who had scored many of the latest big-hit action films such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. The result is far from satisfying.

There are four songs on the album, a mixed bag. First is the title song “Licence to Kill” sung by Gladys Knight. It’s pretty good, and actually utilizes the first two notes of Goldfinger’s theme. It runs over five minutes, which meant it had to be edited down for the opening credits. Several Bond songs in the Brosnan and Craig eras would follow suit. For the end credits is “If You Asked Me To”, sung by Patti Labelle. I personally don’t care much for her voice, and I’m struggling to even remember how the song goes. Even less memorable is “Dirty Love”, a bland, mediocre song sung by Tim Freehan. “Wedding Party” is repetitious and also a bit bland despites its Caribbean flavor. So there’s one good song out of four.

Michael Kamen’s score does little to redeem the music. There’s about half an hour of material on the album, and it is edited with little rhyme or reason. The tracks feature two or three different cues spliced together. The score from the pre-title sequence is split between three tracks! This in itself would be somewhat forgivable if Kamen was able to deliver on the thematic material. Perhaps due to his being hired very late in production, he fails to incorporate “Licence to Kill”, which has a couple ready-made melodies. The only theme, at least the only recognizable one, is of course the James Bond theme, which does get some interesting variations.

Thanks to the film’s Latin American setting, there is some Latin music, primarily in the romantic “Pam”. The music for the Gunbarrel sequence (heard in “James & Felix on Their Way to Church”) is pretty interesting and cool, with violent orchestral blasts (that match the tone of the film), kicking things off before the James Bond theme arrives. The action and suspense material tends to veer into anonymity, with the occasional Spanish guitar riff or sharp orchestral strike to add at least a little character.

This is perhaps the worst James Bond soundtrack. It doesn’t suffer from disco or odd electronica like some of the other entries and doesn’t really hurt the movie, but three out of four songs and most of the score are forgettable. I tried to pay attention to the music when taking notes and found my mind drifting quite easily. Perhaps if John Barry was available the film would have been elevated and prevented James Bond’s longest absence from the big screen.

Rating: (score) 4/10 (album) 3/10

Tracklisting

  1. Licence to Kill (sung by Gladys Knight) (5:13)
  2. Wedding Party (sung by Ivory) (3:53)
  3. Dirty Love (sung by Tim Feehan) (3:45)
  4. Pam (3:50)
  5. If You Asked Me To (sung by Patti Labelle) (3:58)
  6. James & Felix on Their Way to Church (3:53)
  7. His Funny Valentine (3:26)
  8. Sanchez in the Bahamas/Shark Fishing (2:06)
  9. Ninja (6:03)
  10. Licence Revoked (9:11)
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