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Mr. Versatile, Michael Kamen : 'Brazil' Composer Likes To Do It All

July 10, 1986|STEVEN SMITH

Quick quiz: Michael Kamen is (a) composer of one of 1985's most richly symphonic film scores, for "Brazil"; (b) producer of rock's Pink Floyd and Roger Waters albums; (c) a Juilliard-trained oboist; (d) a ballet composer.

The answer, of course, is all of the above. "At one time I divided my time pretty equally between producing rock 'n' roll albums, doing an occasional film, and writing ballet scores," the 37-year-old Kamen said from his London home.

"Then I decided I was a ballet composer who sometimes did rock records and films. Now I'm a producer who does movies. I'll continue to wear all those hats; it's much more fun to keep shifting left to right."

It was Kamen's versatility--and his love of "graphic films, fantasies with a story"--that made him ideal for Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," a wide canvas of visual ideas loosely inspired by the 1930s title song by Ary Borroso.

Kamen was originally reluctant to use the catchy theme as "relentlessly" as Gilliam wanted--"but after a while, Terry had talked me into thinking I had written 'Brazil'. I assimilated that piece until it was coming out of my ears."

Many moviegoers shared his problem. Alternately heroic, villainous and comic by turns, the theme conveys the romanticism that's so (deliberately) missing from Gilliam's dilapidated future.

At first, Kamen confessed, "I thought the song was really cheesy. Luckily, I listened to an original Brazilian recording of it, and realized it always was--and still could be--a beautiful piece of music."

Kamen's score almost went the way of Gilliam's doomed heroes when MCA's Sid Sheinberg began recutting the film. Ironically, Kamen found himself about to be replaced by the pop sound he occasionally practiced.

"Just before Christmas I heard they were tossing the score and shopping for a new composer. My friends said that would put me in the ranks with the greats, but I was totally desolate. I was working on another film, but I couldn't think--I was calling Terry constantly and saying, 'Say it isn't so!' and he'd say, 'Don't worry!' "

The score stayed in.

Kamen's road to film music was an indirect one. After his Juilliard oboe studies he formed a rock group--"my downfall," he chuckled--started producing rock albums and in 1976 scored his first film, a Sean Connery actioner called "The Next Man."

Unlike many of his more classically trained peers, Kamen insists on writing his own orchestrations, no matter the deadline. His score (fully orchestrated) for David Cronenburg's "The Dead Zone" was written in an astonishing 10 days.

"It's a benefit of not being trained," Kamen said; "I don't know what's impossible. I just go ahead and do it."

For "Brazil," Kamen had a luxurious five months to compose as Gilliam edited and re-edited the complex film. The atmosphere encouraged experiment and ideas that didn't always work.

"At one point I decided this world of Terry's had Muzak playing all the time; and since the film is set at Christmas, I made it really insipid Christmas music. Unfortunately, it was too insipid, and we said 'Forget it!' "

An album of the score will be released later this year.

Despite his mainly symphonic bent as a composer, Kamen feels rock and pop are legitimate film music tools, when properly used.

"On Russell Mulcahy's 'Highlander,' I worked with the group Queen, who didn't want to be added to the film; they wanted to be intrinsic. I certainly believe in rock 'n' roll, and see its place in film. But there's nothing as dated as some of those 'cool' jazz scores of the '50s.

" 'Gone With the Wind' also may be a dated film, but it's timeless in part because of the Max Steiner score. I think orchestras lend a sense of timelessness to a film. Slapping in songs from a certain era narrows down their frame of reference pretty severely."

Another recent Kamen film, "Mona Lisa" (one of Cannes' greatest successes), uses pop songs extensively, but Kamen says it's a special case. "Bob Hoskins plays a man who just got out of prison and always listens to Nat King Cole songs. They're part of his character. They're in his brain.

"I'll be finished in about two weeks," he added at the time of the film's scoring. "It's another two-week wonder."

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