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BACKDRAFT – Hans Zimmer


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Backdraft is one of the best action movies of the 1990s, an action thriller murder-mystery set within the world of hotshot Chicago firefighters. Kurt Russell and William Baldwin star as brothers Stephen and Brian McCaffrey; Stephen is a fearless hero, while Brian has always lived in his shadow. After an incident on the job where a fellow firefighter was almost killed, Brian is reassigned to help veteran arson investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro) with his latest case, in which a number of prominent local businessmen and politicians have been murdered in fires involving a phenomenon known as a ‘backdraft’. As Rimgale and Brian dig into the circumstances of the fires, the investigative trail soon leads them in the directions of both a corrupt local alderman, and back to Stephen’s firehouse. The film was directed by Ron Howard, co-stars Scott Glenn, Donald Sutherland, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and is a magnificent edge-of-seat thriller that combines political skullduggery and familial drama with a number of sensational fiery action sequences that quicken the pulse and make your palms sweat with tension. The film was a massive commercial success, grossing almost $80 million in the US alone, and received three Academy Award nominations, for Visual Effects, Sound, and Sound Effects Editing.

Backdraft was the first collaboration between Ron Howard and composer Hans Zimmer, with Howard having previously worked with composers including Lee Holdridge (Splash), James Horner (Cocoon and Willow), Thomas Newman (Gung Ho), and Randy Newman (Parenthood). Howard had apparently been very impressed with Zimmer’s score for Black Rain in 1989, and wanted a variation on that masculine sound to capture the testosterone-fueled heroism of the firefighters at the core of the story on Backdraft. What Zimmer eventually came up with is a landmark work in his career: a perfect distillation of the sound that Zimmer had been perfecting through scores like A World Apart, Rain Man, Black Rain, and Days of Thunder, blending large orchestras with large choral forces, electronic enhancements, and keyboard-led pop music sensibilities, which coalesced and eventually emerged as the first real entry into the pantheon of what we now commonly refer to as the ‘power anthem’.

Backdraft is based around several recurring themes and motifs, including at least two identifiably distinct themes representing the overall ‘heroism’ of the firefighters themselves, and a more emotional theme for the McCaffrey brothers, as well as minor motifs representing the nature of fire, and the brief love affair between Brian and Jennifer Vaitkus, Alderman Swayzak’s assistant played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. These themes are then often incorporated into the numerous exciting sequences of action and fire-driven intensity.

The orchestrations are interesting too, because apart from the usual orchestra-and-synth combination that dominates the score, there are some fascinating individual textures, ranging from the constant rat-a-tat of the snare drum that draws parallels between firefighters and the military, the occasional inclusion of what sounds like a flute or a pennywhistle as a nod to the McCaffrey’s Irish heritage, a solo trumpet refrain signifying the nature of noble sacrifice, and some electronic textures that sound like growls or snarls, illustrating Donald Rimgale’s assertion that fire is a living thing that breathes, and eats, and hates. The influence of the late great Shirley Walker on this aspect of the score cannot be overstated – Zimmer himself has said the same thing on numerous occasions – and again goes some way to cementing her important legacy at the heart of contemporary film music.

The opening cue, “Fighting 17th,” introduces many of the score’s recurring concepts, including the first iteration of the masculine Firefighter’s theme, an appropriately stirring refrain that has since been used in countless trailers, inspired numerous subsequent scores from Zimmer’s contemporaries at Media Ventures, and was even used as the theme for the Japanese cooking show Iron Chef! The fanfare like flurry of strings, leading in to one of the most powerful statements of the theme around the 2:00 mark, is spine-tingling stuff. The first iteration of the ‘living fire’ idea comes around at the 2:35 mark, a collision of unusual choral effects combined with dissonant clusters of strings and woodwinds. This leads into the emotional finale, representing the life-changing moment for the young McCaffrey brothers as they watch their firefighter father die before their eyes. The solo trumpet refrain signifying sacrifice and loss in the line of duty adds to the poignancy of the scene.

“Brothers” introduces the tender theme for the McCaffrey Brothers, initially rendered on strings and piano in combination, but which is later transposed to soft woodwinds and brass, and then a solo piano, at the beginning of the subsequent “335”. The second half of the Brothers cue is quite abstract and electronic, and features more of the growling ‘living fire’ ideas, before concluding with a romantic piece for strings and woodwinds which – in the film – accompanies a love scene between Brian and Jennifer on top of one of his company’s firetrucks. This leads in to “The Arsonist’s Waltz,” which is also at times quite impressionistic, blending subtle textures for strings and woodwinds with the dangerous ‘living fire’ ideas, and more references to the Brian and Jennifer love theme, the latter of which becomes quite rhapsodic towards the end. As mentioned before, “335” begins with statements of the Brothers theme, but this eventually segues into the first of the score’s sequences of tension and suspense, wherein Zimmer’s harsh and grating electro-acoustic tonalities are accompanied by unusual hissing sounds, like a firefighter’s respirator breathing apparatus. This is a clever foreshadowing of the tragedy inherent in this scene, where a rookie firefighter fails to notice the telltale signs of a backdraft fire, and is horribly burned in an explosion.

“Burn It All” is powerfully dramatic, full of determined rhythmic writing for choppy strings, throbbing brass, and heavy percussion patterns. The sequence that begins at around the 40 second mark (and then repeats throughout the cue) is one of the most famous action sequences of Zimmer’s early career, intense and frenetic, with scale-climbing keyboard rhythms and rambunctious percussion. As the cue develops it becomes much darker, making use of a female choir in a somewhat avant-garde manner. The frequent references to the main percussive rhythm is immensely satisfying, as is the off-kilter sequence that begins around 3:40, and which appears to be a clever combination of the main Firefighter theme and the Noble Sacrifice motif.

“You Go, We Go” is the action finale of the score, underscoring the scene where the McCaffrey brothers and their father-figure, Scott Glenn’s Adcox, take the lead in fighting a dangerous chemical fire in a warehouse, and several key plot elements are revealed. The thrilling sequence for strings, percussion, and choir that starts around the one minute mark is clearly based on the final part of “Charlie Loses His Head” from Black Rain, and is just as distressingly compelling in this context as it was in that subterranean garage in Japan. To really build on the inherent drama Zimmer brings in allusions to both the Firefighters theme and the Brothers theme for this pivotal moment, making it all the more musically effective. A moving clarinet solo, and a statement of the Brothers theme for solo piano, makes the finale of the cue desperately emotional.

“Fahrenheit 451” is the moving climax of the film, the funeral of a fallen firefighter weaving through the streets of Chicago, giving the hero a worthy send-off. There are more references to the Brothers theme and the Noble Sacrifice motif, rendered here by elegant strings, warm brass, and soft choir. The whole thing is underpinned by militaristic snare drum riffs and clanging anvils, and breaks away at one point to spotlight a gorgeous cello solo. The explosion of thematic consonance and stirring emotion at around the 2:10 mark – accompanying the salute given to the firefighter by his comrades in full dress uniform– is a high point. The final cue is the wonderful “Show Me Your Firetruck,” which is as one of the most stirring cues of Zimmer’s career. There are major statements of both the Brothers theme and the Noble Sacrifice motif, reorchestrated here for the full orchestra, which grow and grow right through to the massive final statement, accompanying the film’s closing shot of the fire truck weaving through the streets of the city, on its way to yet another emergency. For the men of the Fighting 17th, every day brings new challenges, and it requires constant courage to meet them.

The Backdraft album – which also features the songs “Set Me In Motion” and “The Show Goes On” performed by Bruce Hornsby and The Range – contains just under 30 minutes of Zimmer score. Although it hits all the most important high spots and presents most of the main thematic ideas, it is badly in need of an expansion; the album also unfortunately is presented out of chronological order, has some sound quality issues, and mis-labels some tracks and cues. All of this needs fixing, and I look forward to the day when one of the specialty labels does it.

In the meantime, Backdraft remains a quintessential Hans Zimmer score, and one of the most important landmark titles of his entire career. The intricacy of the thematic writing (which is not always immediately apparent upon first listen) shows that Zimmer was deeply in touch with the film’s emotional needs. The more avant-garde textural writing for electronics and choir, especially in the moments where Zimmer is depicting the ‘living fire,’ are impressive for a composer who was, at that point, only really in his third or fourth year of mainstream film composing. And finally – and perhaps most importantly – it sees the culmination of the style he developed through Black Rain, Days of Thunder, and others, finally emerging here as the groundbreaking ‘power anthem’ ideal that would go on to dominate the Hollywood action movie style for more than two decades. Backdraft is a superb score, one of Zimmer’s all-time best.

Buy the Backdraft soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Set Me In Motion (written by Bruce Hornsby and John Hornsby, performed by Bruce Hornsby and The Range) (5:20)
  • Fighting 17th (4:26)
  • Brothers (3:32)
  • The Arsonist’s Waltz (1:58)
  • 335 (3:02)
  • Burn It All (5:19)
  • You Go, We Go (5:11)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (2:59)
  • Show Me Your Firetruck (3:31)
  • The Show Goes On (written by Bruce Hornsby, performed by Bruce Hornsby and The Range) (7:32)

Running Time: 42 minutes 50 seconds

Milan 197-946-2 (1991)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Shirley Walker, Bruce Fowler and Larry Rench. Recorded and mixed by Jay Rifkin. Edited by Laura Perlman. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin.

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