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ONLY THE BRAVE – Joseph Trapanese

October 27, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Since I moved to the United States in 2005 I’ve developed a deep admiration for firefighters, especially the ones who deal with brushfires. I’ve seen first hand here in California how devastating wildfires can be; bone dry vegetation, coupled with strong winds, and difficult terrain, can lead to terrifyingly enormous fires that can march across miles and miles of ground, turning entire communities into ash. Just last week more than 6,000 homes were lost and dozens of people were killed in a wildfire north of San Francisco – and it’s not just California. Recent fires in Spain and Portugal, and in Australia, have shown us how deadly nature can be. Director Joseph Kosinski’s film Only the Brave honors the men and women on these front lines by telling the largely true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters who in 2003 risked everything to protect a town in Arizona from a historic wildfire. The film stars Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, and Jennifer Connelly, and has an original score by composer Joseph Trapanese.

I never fully jumped on the Joseph Trapanese bandwagon. After his genuinely excellent mainstream debut working alongside Daft Punk on Tron Legacy in 2010 there were some within the film music industry who saw him as the ‘next big thing,’ but for me most of his subsequent scores – Oblivion in 2013, Earth to Echo in 2014, Insurgent in 2015, Straight Outta Compton in 2015, Allegiant in 2016 – have all been workmanlike but dreadfully uninspired, prime examples of the insipid mainstream action music tropes that have emerged over the last five years or so, with their relentless chugga-chugga cello ostinatos and Hans Zimmer braaaahms. I had hoped that a story as powerful and moving as Only the Brave would inspire Trapanese to break out of his funk and write something different: emotional, stirring, exciting. But, sadly, this is not the case.

Only the Brave is yet another entry in a long line of dull, predictable, desperately generic Hollywood action scores. All the elements are there – including a big orchestra recorded in London, intentionally rendered without synths, and the potential for recurring thematic ideas with real emotional content – but somehow, despite all this, Trapanese makes the music seem soulless. It’s as if someone bought a piece of music software called ‘Epic Soundtrack 101’ and used the basic settings as an actual score. It’s as if someone licensed a bunch of overly-gushing trailer music and just dropped it into the movie. It’s like someone made a list of every tired action movie music cliché from the last decade, and used everything on it.

The score is built around a single main theme. Trapanese says “I wanted the music to feel like you were in someone’s bedroom listening to them play for you, as if these characters were right next you telling their story, which is why we made a deliberate choice to feature one theme, the Hotshot theme, that grows and changes alongside our characters throughout the film. Joe (Kosinski, the director) and I built something simple and direct, a theme that drives right into the heart of the audience and creates a direct emotional connection to our story.” The thinking behind this is admirable, but the execution – while slick and professional – feels empty.

The Hotshot Theme is everywhere in the score; a single two-note motif that follows each of the protagonists through their lives. It’s rendered in different ways: soulfully and with added acoustic guitars in “Waking Up,” with a more insistent throbbing electric guitar undercurrent in both “Training” and “Juniper Tree,” as a sort of ambient fug of piano chords and increasingly noisy overlapping textures in “Fire Dream,” and with a hopefulness and sense of anticipation in “Certification”.

However, whenever the theme is not present, the score seems curiously insubstantial. “Amanda and Eric” features a romantic theme for the characters played by Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly, but it is little more than a simple guitar riff, endlessly repeated over a string drone and a soft piano, which Trapanese maintains was not created digitally but feels very synthetic; it is repeated later in the score during “The Bear”. “Growing” features more guitars, playing off each other amid a wash of strings, and is actually one of the prettiest cues in the score. Contrast this with cues like “Eval,” or “On the Line,” which are little more than extended exercises in pulsing and droning, and make the middle section of the album drag.

Even the action music, which one would expect to be the standout element of a score like this, feels tired, like a cut price Hans Zimmer circa 1995. “Rim Fire” tries to gets things moving with an increased percussion element and a bank of strident cello chords alongside a faraway-sounding restatement of the Hotshots Theme, but it’s so anonymous than any in-context impact it might have is quickly lost. The score’s three pivotal cues – “Yarnell,” “Brendan Rescued,” and “Final Moments” – offer a few moments of interest, including the relentlessness of a ticking clock motif as the fire inches ever closer to the eponymous small Arizona town, more of the enhanced percussion and throbbing low strings, and several pseudo-stirring performances of the Hotshots theme, but for some reason it never feels like it comes together as it should. It’s not exciting enough, not dramatic enough, and it certainly doesn’t convey the weight of the terror and awe the Hotshots surely felt as they stared down this apocalyptic furnace on the mountainside. The conclusion of “Final Moments” is actually more annoying than anything else, a rowdy cacophony of percussion and drones that does little to convey the gravity of the situation, and is a massive missed opportunity to create something truly profound.

The film’s emotional finale, comprising “The Gym” and “Tribute,” offers a few moments of reflection and catharsis through extended variations on the Hotshots theme for solo piano, often accompanied by enigmatic-sounding guitar improvisations, but even here Trapanese’s instinct to dial things back keeps the score from really connecting with the audience. The score’s conclusion, “Hotshots,” showcases the main theme at its most prominent, and has a solid-sounding solo cello accompaniment, but overall it sounds more like an extended country music instrumental than a true memorial to the men of Granite Mountain.

It’s such a shame that a story that touches on so many powerful emotions – honor, steadfastness, bravery, sacrifice – ended up with a score that conveys so few of them. In many ways, Only the Brave is a perfect example of the lack of depth that exists in far too much of the most mainstream Hollywood film music. It’s all surface sheen, glossy and professional, but it masks an inner core that is hollow, lacking in innovation, content, and genuine emotion. Joseph Trapanese is a composer who knows how to make his orchestra sound good, and he’s a whizz at making sure his music follows the template expected of lowest-common-denominator action scores, but if you’re looking for something that appeals on anything more than a superficial level, I would suggest searching elsewhere.

Buy the Only the Brave soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Waking Up (2:25)
  • Amanda and Eric (2:47)
  • Training (2:22)
  • Growing (1:17)
  • Chopper Ride (3:24)
  • Eval (2:58)
  • Fire Dream (2:04)
  • On the Line (2:05)
  • Certification (1:35)
  • Rim Fire (3:01)
  • Juniper Tree (4:15)
  • The Bear (3:05)
  • Yarnell (3:09)
  • Brendan Rescued (7:07)
  • Final Moments (9:13)
  • The Gym (2:31)
  • Tribute (2:25)
  • Hotshots (2:57)

Running Time: 58 minutes 50 seconds

Varese Sarabande (2017)

Music composed by Joseph Trapanese. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Joseph Trapanese. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Bryan Lawson. Album produced by Joseph Trapanese and Bryan Lawson.

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