00 Saturdays Week #32 – Licence to Kill Music Review

“Got a licence to kill
And you know I’m going straight for your heart.
Got a licence to kill
Anyone who tries to tear us apart.”

It’s time for another 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure.  This week, we’re discussing the music to the second Timothy Dalton James Bond film, Licence to Kill!

Theme Song

Licence to Kill features the return of the more adult contemporary/easy listening standard for theme songs with one of my very favorite R&B artists of the 70s, Gladys Knight.

There’s a bombastic feel to this song that hasn’t been present for a long time in a Bond theme.  Of the last six Bond theme songs, they either were slower in tempo or featured a Pop Rock sound.  It’s probably been since maybe The Man with the Golden Gun that there had been a theme that felt like a lounge song that could be belted.  In fact, it wanted so much to have that sound, that the horn line from “Goldfinger” was directly adapted which meant royalties needed to be paid to John Barry, Anthony Newley, and Leslie Bricusse who wrote that song.

Gladys Knight was not the original choice.  Initially, Vic Flick (who is best known for performing the guitar riff in the “James Bond Theme”) and Eric Clapton were asked to create a theme song.  However, their song which did play up more of the gritty nature of the film was rejected.  The song Knight performs was composed by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, and Walter Afanasieff.  It is the first theme song that is totally disconnected from the score of the film and does not lend any of its music or reference to Michael Kamen’s score.

At 5 minutes and 13 seconds, it is the longest Bond theme of them all, though versions released as singles in 1989 featured a shorter, 4 minute and roughly 20 second version.  Interesting to note, the video above is directed by Daniel Kleinman.  He will take over the title sequences with the next film and has done all but one since GoldenEye.  You’ll notice some themes in the video above that matches the next film’s opening title sequence.

I mentioned last week that I have a tremendous amount of nostalgia for the movie.  This song definitely  benefits from that too, but it’s a really good song on its own as well without my deep feelings for everything that comes with Licence to Kill.  It has really charged lyrics and the horns that sting throughout the musical part are really exciting.  I also love Gladys Knight.  “Midnight Train to Georgia” is one of my all time favorite songs.  So I have no problem admitting that I just keep heaping all these nostalgic feelings onto this movie!


John Barry was not available to do the score for Licence to Kill due to recovering from throat surgery.  It’s likely he would have returned, but I hate to think we would have had a different song, and a different general feel the music adds to the movie.  As much as I love John Barry’s music, sometimes what you get is perfect as it is and works out the way it is meant to.

What we get is Michael Kamen scoring Licence to Kill.  Kamen was known for other action films of the era like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.  Kamen was a well known musician and writer.  Despite being American, Kamen worked with many British acts like Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Eurythmics, and Eric Clapton – which would tie the potential theme song to the score.  I’m not sure if that would have necessarily meant any connection between theme and score, but considering he has worked with Clapton in the past, I would have to believe he would there may have been some kind of collaboration.

Kamen was a huge fan of the Bond films and jumped at the chance to write music for the series.  It was believed that he would be able to produce a score that was the next best thing to John Barry considering the usual composer was unavailable.  What Kamen produced was absolutely in line with what you might expect from Barry.  There are several tips of the hat to various pieces that Barry composed in past films.  In particular, there’s a piece in the pre-title sequence after Bond has captured Sanchez’s plane and is about to jump with Felix and parachute down to Felix’s wedding that has that light violin music that Barry often used in his scores.

Beyond that, Kamen took advantage of the Latin American setting by using several Latin guitar riffs.  He also had several exciting pieces that used tubular bells and chimes that ramp up action scenes.  It’s a very good score and it absolutely remains consistent throughout in how it builds excitement as well as bring the tempo down in the quieter scenes.  I often wonder if there wasn’t a delay in the next film in the series if Barry would have returned or if Kamen would be asked to come back for another film.

One more thing to note is this is the second time a second theme is used for the end titles.  For this, producers went to Patti LaBelle for “If You Asked Me To”.   This was a moderate hit for her.  While it appeared on an album of hers in the same year as the film, it was specifically written for the movie based on some consent dialog flirtfully exchanged between Timothy Dalton and Carey Lowell.

There are a few things that I really like about this song.  First, it fits perfectly for the end of the movie as the credits roll over a panning shot of a coastal Mexican town.  It’s a good combination of the song and the visuals.  I especially liked how Knight and LaBelle operate as fantastic bookends for the movie.  This was the first film that a black woman performed the theme song.  The more R&B stylings for both the opening theme and ending theme is a pretty good example of perfect symmetry on the soundtrack.

Of course, most people know the 1992 version by Celine Dion that was a massive hit for her.  Me, though, I liked the song before it became cool.

The Opening Title Sequence

Licence to Kill marks the end of Maurice Binder’s wonderful, 14 film contribution to the Bond series.  This would not be the final movie of Binder’s career before passing in 1991, but this is a pretty solid last outing for him.  I was critical of his opening titles for The Living Daylights.  However, with Licence to Kill, he does bounce back in style if not in total perfection.

First, the naked ladies are back.  I am a fan of this.  However, it is obvious that the credits may have been either designed for another song or created completely independent of the music.  In many of the past songs, the title usually appeared on screen at the same time as the lyrics passed along the song.  This of course wouldn’t always work out when songs like “Nobody Does It Better” or “All Time High” were used, but you get my point.  Also, many times, if Binder would use a gun firing, it would normally match the beat or a drum cue or something.  Here, it doesn’t.

I really feel as though these titles were created based on some other piece of music.  The style is back, but it is a little bit of a mixed bag because you also find other awkward things in the titles too.  It opens and closes in the lens of a camera.  I think it might be referencing a wedding photographer, since Bond and Felix are headed to Felix’s wedding, but it’s a little more random.  Also, the girl on the negatives from the camera is Asian.  Is that supposed to be Talisa Soto’s Lupe?  That would be odd because Lupe is most definitely Hispanic, not Asian.  If it isn’t Lupe, than I guess we just have pictures of an Asian girl. Nothing wrong with that, but usually these Binder titles were a little tighter in covering themes or references to characters or actions, etc.

Oh well.  I still salute Maurice Binder’s unbelievable run and his absolutely fascinating imagination at delivering titles.  Also, his gun barrel openings will go down as one of the most iconic beginnings to any movie ever.  I love it so much that a representation of that is tattooed on my right shoulder.

Join me next week for a look at the first in a new era for the series, the beginning of Pierce Brosnan’s long overdue era, GoldenEye.

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