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  • Stefan Riedlinger

Backdraft - Hans Zimmer - Soundtrack Review

“Backdraft” was the first Hans Zimmer CD I bought, and it is still one of my favourite scores. I am not sure if it’s the orchestration of Shirley Walker, but in my opinion, this music is a much better way of underscoring action scenes than the sound Hans Zimmer developed in recent years with a high focus on electronics. The last track of this score is one of my favourite Hans Zimmer tracks, and I really liked listening to it while travelling or starting my day.

The movie

"Backdraft" is an action-thriller directed by Ron Howard from 1991 about a group of firefighters in Chicago. With a total gross of over $ 152 Mio., this movie is the highest grossing film ever made about firefighters. Furthermore, the movie received three Academy Award nominations, and Hans Zimmer won for his music the BMI Film Music Award. Here is the trailer:

The story about two brothers, played by William Baldwin and Kurt Russell, is not very well developed and the love story is crap. Additional and remarkable appearance is made by Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland with some great scenes, and Scott Glen. The very realistic fire scenes are the stars of the movie, and on a big screen, this movie is still breath-taking. Firefighting professionals mentioned that the fire in the movie is pretty close to reality, but more realism would have resulted in the fact that in almost every fire the smoke conditions completely obscured all vision. Also, the idea that the fire is acting like a living entity is not very realistic, but exactly this idea gives the film a very special and demonic touch.

The music

Before he was assigned to compose the music for “Backdraft”, Hans Zimmer already scored a lot of film scores and was well-known for this contribution to “Rain Man” (1988) with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” (1989), and especially for his lovely score for “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989). Zimmer’s musical approach for “Backdraft” featured a good mixture of electronics and orchestra and choir and a very majestic main theme.

Looking back at Hans Zimmer’s career, I prefer the soundtracks from the 1990s. Here, Zimmer tried to compose various soundtracks in different styles and created lovely melodies such as the theme for “Miss Daisy” or “Rain Man”. In “Backdraft”, Zimmer transformed even the characteristics of this “Backdraft”-Fire into music. A backdraft is an explosive event caused by a fire, resulting from rapid re-introduction of oxygen in an oxygen-depleted environment, for example, the breaking of a window or the opening of a door to an enclosed space. The film shows the danger of this backdraft for firefighters in a great way.

On Filmtracks, you can read that Hans Zimmer and Ron Howard who developed a strong collaboration with James Horner before did not work very well at the beginning because of miscommunication. Zimmer nearly got fired during the project. The idea to compose an “ode to fireman” was finally exactly achieved by Zimmer’s final approach. For this, the composer used a 95-people orchestra with a heavy emphasize on the brass and percussion section (high dominance of the snare drums) and also sometimes a female choir, especially in the action scenes. Here is an interview:

The first track “Fighting 17th” sets the tone for the whole soundtrack. It is a slow and majestic start that introduces the main theme. The second track, “Brothers”, presents the love theme that is similar to the love theme later in “Pearl Harbour” (200), this track also introduces the sound effects that underscore the fire scenes because this scene is shot in a parallel storytelling about the two brothers: one has sex, the other fights against the fire. Track 3 “The Arsonist’s Waltz” introduces a nice Waltz approach into the music, before with the next track “333” the action starts.

Track 6 ”Burn It All” is a now famous action track for the firefighting scenes that introduces the special Hans Zimmer approach to underscore action tracks. This highly effective music drives the action forward, no matter how loud the sound effects are. The female choir works very well here. A great idea: Men are fighting a fire, and Hans Zimmer uses a female choir to underscore this!

We continue the action with the melodramatic “You Go, Wo Go”. Zimmer also transformed the hammering of an axe into music, such as Jerry Goldsmith the dropping of a basketball in “Hoosiers” (1986). The second last track called “Fahrenheit 451” - title refers to the temperature 451 °F (233 °C) that was thought was the autoignition temperature of paper, scientists now believe it is 440 °F to 470 °F – is another fabulous action track, the second part of this track underscores the funeral. The solo trumpet, also heard in the first track “Fighting 17th”, gives the track the necessary majestic and patriotic tone. In the Milan CD, I have, there is no break between “You Go, We Go” and “Fahrenheit 451”, these tracks belong together.

Here is the track to "Show me your firetruck" in a different version with more electronics:

The Milan CD is not perfect, the sound quality sometimes not so good and the cues out of order than used in the movie. Even though, “Backdraft” is a great movie music CD, very visually on the one hand but also independent from the movie. Especially the last track “Show me your Firetruck” is a wonderful piece of music and one of my all-time favorite tracks. Great job, Hans! Why not composing more in that style again?

I found a nice live performance of the score:

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2014, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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