Backdraft released on May 24, 1991, earned solid reviews, hauled in $152.4 million at the worldwide box office against a $40 million budget, earned three Academy Award nominations for Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects, and Best Sound, and even produced a popular Universal Studios attraction that ran for nearly two decades.
The pic is loaded with talented actors, namely Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland, J.T. Walsh, and Robert De Niro, guided by acclaimed director Ron Howard’s sturdy hand from a screenplay by Gregory Widen of Highlander and The Prophecy fame.
Yet, for all the talk about the incredible FX and that rock-solid cast, the key to the film’s success remains Hans Zimmer’s magnificent action score.
Let’s take a step back and rewind to the late ’90s. I was a gangly teenager very much into films and film scores. My admittedly small collection featured a lot of James Horner, John Williams, a few Danny Elfman, and a couple from Hans Zimmer, who I knew mostly due to his sensational work on The Lion King.
My family took a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood around this time and enjoyed the likes of Back to the Future: The Ride, E.T., Jurassic Park, and the brand new attraction Terminator 2: 3D. As most were prone to do upon arriving at Universal Studios, my family made our way to the bottom level to enjoy a few rounds on Jurassic Park before the crowds arrived. I think we may have even hopped on the cheesy E.T. ride but then decided we needed to dry off in the sun and headed over to the line cue for Backdraft.
That’s when I heard it: Hans Zimmer’s heroic Backdraft theme, which the composer breaks down in the following video:
On many occasions, I’ve heard a cue or clip from a soundtrack and instantly found myself clamoring for more. When I heard Rachel Portman’s theme for The Cider House Rules during the Academy Awards, I ran to the nearest CD store and purchased the album. The first time I heard James Horner’s Glory in those “Be a Hero, Be a Teacher” commercials, I ordered the soundtrack on eBay.
Similarly, when I heard Zimmer’s Backdraft theme, I had to have the soundtrack. Luckily, the Universal CityWalk was home to a CD Warehouse — that’s where you used to be able to buy used CDs, kids — and, as luck would have it, this particular shop carried a used copy of the Backdraft soundtrack for $6.99.
Yeah, I made my parents play the entire score during our six to eight-hour drive back home, and yes, it drove them nuts after the first 45 minutes. I didn’t care. I was hooked. Over the next year, I picked up a lot of Zimmer’s albums, including Crimson Tide, The Power of One, The Rock, and The Thin Red Line. Glorious, all of them, but Backdraft was my favorite. The drums. That theme. The power. All of it worked together to create a magnificent listening experience I couldn’t get enough of.
Now, here’s the twist: despite my love of the score, or, rather, due to my love for the score, I never watched Ron Howard’s film — and I really like a lot of Ron Howard films! My reasoning? I didn’t think the movie could live up to music.
Is it possible for a movie to ruin a soundtrack? Absolutely. That’s the reason I never saw Bicentennial Man, even though Horner’s score ranks among my favorites, and the reason I stopped listening to James Newton Howard’s astounding Lady in the Water. In the latter’s case, the visuals killed the music.
Still, I was curious about Backdraft. My parents had seen it at some point and thought it was merely okay; I don’t recall any reactions from kids at school who were too busy hyping The Matrix to give a squat about a film about firefighters made way back in 1991 (for a teenager, eight years was a long time). Even so, I finally sat down to watch Backdraft when it aired on TV during one of those Sunday Night Movie specials and thought it was a good film with some great moments.
I liked Kurt Russell’s Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey and the bitter struggle between him and his brother Brian (William Baldwin), though never understood the casting of Robert De Niro in such a one-dimensional role — one does not cast De Niro to poke and prod at burnt wood — and thought the whole Donald Sutherland subplot was a little much. But, I still came away from my viewing experience fairly satisfied.
Really, though, Backdraft too often tries to bite off more than it can chew. There are three plot elements at play and Howard has difficulty melding them together into a coherent whole. Really, this should have been a Parenthood-esque story about firefighters and the personal struggles they endure due to the chances they take. And while that element is certainly present (mostly by way of Russell’s conflicted relationship with his wife and son), too often the human drama takes a back seat to a cheesy subplot involving a “serial arsonist,” who is burning city officials to a crisp for reasons I still don’t entirely understand.
(As an aside, when I saw Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave, my first thought was, “This is what Backdraft should have been.”)
At any rate, Howard still manages to deliver a picture that entertains thanks to some truly impressive visual effects and action scenes, including an exciting third act set at a chemical plant.
Through it all, Zimmer’s score truly shines.
His score is so good, it figured prominently in a number of movie trailers* for years, including Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (music starts at the minute mark):
Ah, good times.
Sure, Zimmer has gone on to compose better scores for better films — The Thin Red Line remains his de facto masterpiece, although his recent score for Dune is equally astounding — but Backdraft remains, along with Black Rain (which is very similar in style), one of his early successes and introduced a number of elements and cues he would later explore in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean, and others.
Zimmer’s music drives Ron Howard’s Backdraft and remains a key part of the film’s success:
So many goosebumps. Sure, Backdraft the film doesn’t quite live up to its potential considering the talent involved, but it works as an enjoyable action film with some really good dramatic beats driven home by Zimmer’s pulse-pounding, classic score. Personally, I wish the composer would give us more of the rhythmic electronic style he employed throughout the ’90s. I’d kill to get another theme similar to Crimson Tide or The Rock.
That’s not to say Zimmer has gotten worse. If anything, his work has become even more impressive, but, ’90s era Hans Zimmer was awesome. And Backdraft is a prime example of his early genius. Why the powers-that-be haven’t released an expanded album remains one of life’s great mysteries.
*Intriguingly, for this article at least, Ron Howard employed James Horner’s Glory for the Backdraft trailer. The director had worked with Horner on Cocoon and Willow before turning to Zimmer for Backdraft. Howard mingled with John Williams and Randy Newman for a time, but eventually came back to Horner for Apollo 13, Ransom, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Beautiful Mind, The Missing, and then reverted back to Zimmer for The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels & Demons, Rush, Inferno, and Hillbilly Elegy.