Despite only being a modest hit when it was first released during the early months of 1986, Highlander has gone on to be a cult classic, and is now considered one of the most influential and well regarded sci-fi action movies of the decade. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, the film stars Christopher Lambert as Conor MacLeod, born in Scotland in the year 1518, who gradually discovers that he is an ‘immortal’, one of many such men who are destined to fight one another across time, and who can only be killed by complete decapitation. When one immortal decapitates another, the survivor receives a transfer of power called a “quickening,” and eventually, after all the immortals have battled until there is only one left alive, the last survivor will receive “the prize” of immense knowledge about the nature of the universe. After receiving training and education from Spanish nobleman Ramirez (Sean Connery), a fellow immortal, MacLeod gradually battles his way to 1980s New York, where he lives under the assumed identity of an antiquities dealer named Russell Nash. However, a string of beheadings in the city brings MacLeod into contact with NYPD detective Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) and – worst of all – the evil immortal Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who will stop at nothing to claim the Prize for himself.
The score for Highlander was written by the up-and-coming Anglo-American composer Michael Kamen, whose fledgling career was still on the rise following his scores for films such as The Dead Zone and Brazil, and the British TV series Edge of Darkness. At the behest of producer Peter Davis, Kamen worked closely with Brian May of the rock band Queen in creating the score; Kamen wrote the majority of the orchestral material while May wrote the film’s love theme, “Who Wants to Live Forever,” and the rest of the band wrote several additional songs for the film’s soundtrack, including “A Kind of Magic” and “Princes of the Universe”. Their collaboration was very successful – Kamen was able to seamlessly include May’s melody into his score at appropriate moments, while the songs themselves went on to be chart hits, especially in the UK, where “A Kind of Magic” peaked at #3.
Unfortunately, the film’s poor box office performance caused the planned soundtrack album to be cancelled. Queen’s songs were released on their 1986 album, “A Kind of Magic,” but the vast majority of Kamen’s score remains unreleased to this day. The only legitimate release of Highlander’s score music is via the 1995 album Highlander: The Original Scores, released by the German label Edel, which features five tracks of Kamen’s score along with selections from Stewart Copeland’s score for Highlander II: The Quickening, and J. Peter Robinson’s score for Highlander: The Final Dimension.
The five Kamen cues – “The Highlander Theme,” “Rachel’s Surprise/Who Wants To Live Forever,” “The Quickening,” “Swordfight at 34th Street,” and “Under the Garden/The Prize” – show a composer who is clearly still honing his craft. Despite the performance of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, much of the Highlander score feels very raw, as though Kamen was trying too hard to impress his employers with a vast array of flourishes, changes of tempo and style, and densely orchestrated action sequences. This is something that Kamen was guilty of quite a bit during the early years of his career – Kamen himself, when reflecting on his earlier works, once called his score for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ‘overwhelmingly baroque and ornate’ – and some may find his writing here lacks the smoothness and clarity of some of his later works.
Despite this, there is still a great deal in Highlander to recommend. Kamen’s main Highlander theme is memorable – a two-note fanfare, echoed by a six note response in the horns – and it plays throughout much of the score. It’s a quintessential Kamen motif, with chord progressions and rhythmic ideas that those who have followed his career will recognize, and it gives MacLeod a noble, heroic identity. Kamen allows the theme to pass around his orchestra freely, from strings to brasses, and he augments his ensemble with electronics, a female solo vocalist, and even some region-specific instrumentalists, including bagpipes and a mandora, a type of medieval mandolin or lute.
The performance of Brian May’s love theme in “Rachel’s Surprise/Who Wants To Live Forever” is simply gorgeous, sweeping and sentimental, performed by a bank of tremolo-heavy strings. “The Quickening” is equally pretty, with elegant string phrases, light woodwind accents, and interpolations of the Highlander theme which play against a more dance-like motif for his friend and mentor, Ramirez. “Swordfight at 34th Street” is full of swash and buckle, with the tinkling mandora playing off a series of timpani runs and horn fanfares that recall the similarly buoyant writing heard in later scores like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and, oddly, Mr. Holland’s Opus. The final cue, “Under the Garden/The Prize,” has more of a sense of danger to it, with more dissonant writing for piano clusters and stark, stabbing strings. Heraldic variations on the Highlander theme build up to the climax, a cacophony of overlapping horns and cymbal clashes.
Over the years, several bootlegs of the score have emerged on the secondary market, the best of which combines the five tracks from the Edel album with five additional score tracks, an instrumental version of “A Kind of Magic,” three Queen songs, and a re-orchestrated version of “There Can Be Only One” taken from the 1998 compilation album Michael Kamen’s Opus. While I usually do not condone bootlegs, I would nevertheless recommend finding a copy if you are able, at least until a legitimate version is released. There are some superbly rousing variations on the Highlander theme in “The Castle – Anno Domini 1518” and “Training Montage,” a longer statement of Ramirez’s theme in “Ramirez Arrives,” a brutal action sequence in “Forge Battle/There Can Be Only One,” and an especially moving piece in “Heather’s Death,” highlighting some lovely interplay between harp and strings, and a surprisingly effective electric guitar variation on the “Who Wants to Live Forever” theme.
Considering the cult success of Highlander, with its multitude of sequels and it’s unfathomably long-lasting TV spinoff starring Adrian Paul, it’s a real shame that Michael Kamen’s score is not better known than it is. In many ways, Highlander is the genesis of the action style Kamen perfected in later scores like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Three Musketeers, and both the intelligent thematic writing and the florid orchestral arrangements illustrate perfectly why so many hold him in such high regard. This score is a prime candidate for a La-La Land, Intrada, or Varese Sarabande re-release, if the original source material can be located, and should that ever happen I would unhesitatingly recommend picking it up.