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LADDER 49 – William Ross

ladder49Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For some reason, there aren’t very many movies made about fire fighters – Ron Howard’s 1991 blockbuster Backdraft being one of the few high-profile exceptions. This phenomenon is odd, as their exploits are inherently cinematic, approaching as they do raging infernos with a degree of selflessness and heroism that makes their exploits an engaging movie-going experience. Also, since many members of the New York Fire Department were killed in the aftermath of 9/11, the lives of the men and women who battle fires on a daily basis have taken on noble, almost mythic proportions in American culture – and it is this angle that director Jay Russell’s film Ladder 49 explores.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Jack Morrison, a member of one of Baltimore’s finest fire crews, who while tackling an inferno in a large industrial unit, finds himself cut off from his team, badly injured, and in need of rescue. As he lies waiting for his comrades, he reflects on various important episodes in his life: his initiation into the unit; his first meeting with Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who would go on to become both a close friend and a moral guide; his relationships with colleagues Lenny (Robert Patrick), Tommy (Morris Chestnut), Dennis (Billy Burke) and Ray (Balthazar Getty); how he meets and falls in love with his wife Linda (Jacinta Barrett); and the various blazes he has tackled – and beaten – over the years. Although the film does not generally deviate from the genre’s stock clichés, they are filmed with such dignity and conviction that they are easy to overlook, and the honest sentiment the film conveys makes the overall package one which is easy to admire. Phoenix, Travolta, Patrick, and especially Barrett are very good in their roles, and the technical aspects of the film (especially the elaborate pyrotechnics) lend the project an enjoyably professional sheen. Also worth noting is William Ross’s moving, dramatic score, easily one of the best of his career.

Working with Russell for the third time, Ross approached the film from the blue-collar angle which celebrates their heroism and selflessness, while acknowledging that the men of Ladder 49 are just ordinary guys doing an extraordinary job in difficult circumstances. The main theme, performed by surging strings in the “Main Title”, is a memorable, emotional piece which is flexible enough to be performed in different guises throughout the score without losing any of its impact: it appears later with gentle woodwind-led tenderness in “Jack and Linda” and “Jack Goodnight”, and in several settings as an action motif under more discordant material. When the real moments of emotional anguish come, in cues such as “Dennis’ Funeral”, the lilting “Jenny’s Alive”, the haunting “Awards Ceremony”, and the truly poignant “Memorial”, Ross’s music soars.

To capture the working class grit of the Baltimore firemen the film depicts, Ross uses a definite Irish lilt in his orchestrations, often through the combined use of a bodhrán drum, a pennywhistle and guitars. Although the link between the New England working class community and Irish music is somewhat tenuous, the emotional impact of the musical choice is undeniable. Cues such as “Rookie’s First Day”, “Firehouse Montage” and “Another Rookie” have a kind of light-hearted optimism to them which captures perfectly the good-natured camaraderie and male bonding which takes place on a regular basis inside the firehouse, while the rollicking “First Fire” celebrates the vibrant energy and sense of exhilaration Jack feels when tackling his first blaze through ebullient rock orchestrations. There’s actually quite a lot of James Horner in the score for Ladder 49 – which could be one of the reasons I like it so much. On several occasions, many as a result of the Gaelic twist, one is reminded of scores such as The Devil’s Own, Braveheart, and even Legends of the Fall.

The moments of action and suspense, notably the four “Jack in the Hole” tracks, “Dennis’ Demise” and the excellent “Rope Rescue”, add a sense of menace and drama to an otherwise quite tender score, and seek to remind the listener that, amongst all the hi-jinks and emotional soul-searching, there is still a dangerous job to be done. More urgent drumbeats, more strident orchestral performances, and increased tension in the presentation of the main theme make these cues among the highlights of the album.

Following the success of this score, his work with John Williams on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and with The Game of Their Lives on the horizon, William Ross is proving himself to be one of the most talented orchestral film composers working in Hollywood today – and long may his career continue. This album is a promotional release of Ross’s score released through his agents at Gorfaine-Schwartz, and was not released commercially. The widely-available soundtrack album features one lengthy cut from Ross’s score, alongside songs by singer/songwriter Robbie Robertson (“Shine Your Light”), The Ohio Players, Bonnie Raitt, The Pogues and The Black Crowes.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:06)
  • Rookie’s First Day (1:26)
  • First Fire (2:19)
  • Jack in the Hole #1 (2:59)
  • Jack and Linda (2:00)
  • Firehouse Montage (1:13)
  • Jack in the Hole #2 (2:55)
  • Another Rookie (0:50)
  • Dennis’ Demise (2:08)
  • Dennis’ Funeral (2:46)
  • Rope Rescue (3:47)
  • Jack in the Hole #3 (3:10)
  • Jack Goodnight (1:03)
  • Christmas Fire (1:47)
  • Jenny’s Alive (2:09)
  • Awards Ceremony (2:15)
  • Jack in the Hole #4 (3:30)
  • Memorial (6:21)

Running Time: 45 minutes 47 seconds

Composer Promo WRCD-03 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by William Ross. Orchestrations by William Ross, Mark McKenzie, Bruce Babcock and Frank Macchia. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Tom Kramer. Album produced by William Ross.

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