Joseph Trapanese is a name that does not come up often in friendly, casual conversations concerning film music. This is mainly because he has worked in the background on a number of projects including Tron: Legacy and acts as an arranger, orchestrator, and producer of film (and other mediums) music. Lately, though, he has become a more recognisable name in film music, branching out and writing entire scores for films. He collaborated with Anthony Gonzalez on the music for the 2013 thriller Oblivion and his score for Earth to Echo was not without merit, making him a composer to watch. For their third film together (the first two being Tron: Legacy and Oblivion), director Joseph Kosinski and composer Joseph Trapanese set out to do something a little different with the score for Only the Brave.
The 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona was one of the deadliest wildfires in United States history, killing 19 firefighters and injuring more than 20 others. It grew to encompass a large enough area that the entire city of Yarnell and part of a neighbouring city had to be completely evacuated. The horrific combination of a lightning strike, strong winds that day, and a severe drought turned a small fire into the imposing, gargantuan wildfire that necessitated extreme measures. The Prescott Fire Department at the time had a specific group of firefighters whose specialty was wildfires, and they were called the Granite State Hotshots. A few days after that lightning strike ignited the fire, all but one of the crew perished when the fire overtook them. Only the Brave tells the story of these men as they courageously and selflessly battled that wildfire and sadly ended up paying the ultimate price.
For the music, Trapanese sought to create a score that was “human and vulnerable”. According to Trapanese, it appears that there were no synthetic instruments used in the making of this score. Rather, he opted to use acoustic instruments recorded utilizing some different, unique techniques. The recording techniques utilized do make a difference on the overall sound of the score, and unfortunately not in a good way.
The main solo instrument dotting this score all over is the guitar, both acoustic and electric. It is front and center whenever a tender moment is portrayed or the main ‘Hotshots’ theme stated. For the score, Trapanese unfortunately made the decision utilize and focus on just one main theme for the firefighting crew. Many composers have in the past used a similar tactic, choosing to focus on and develop one strong main theme through the course of a given score. So this method does on occasion work beautifully, but only in cases where that main theme is strong, unique, identifiable, and is developed over the course of the score, none of which seem to be the case with Only the Brave.
Introduced in ‘Waking Up’ on piano and guitar, the main theme is gently warm and positive and therefore likely remains inoffensive and unobtrusive in the film itself. Unfortunately it is also simplistic to a fault and has that stock Hans Zimmer/Remote Control (RC) sound that renders the entire affair completely generic. Any number of stock RC noble/heroic themes could have been used in its place with minimal effect on the finished product. This largely forgettable and unoriginal theme is pervasive and serves as the core identity of the score. Because of this the entire score is not likely to be retained in the memory at all after it is finished playing.
Having been associated with Remote Control Productions, Trapanese’s score for Only the Brave certainly fits the sound of that production house to a T. Amazingly, there is an actual orchestra credited in the liner notes, though I fail to see why such an expense was not spared since the same sonic effect could have (and has in the past) been achieved without the acoustic instruments. Indeed, aside from the guitar and piano, every instrument including the orchestra sounds synthetic. Additionally, nearly every moment of this score sounds like it is drenched in electronic processing (a controversial sound Zimmer is known for perpetuating). Even in the lighter, more tender moments, the piano sounds like it is lost behind some hazy, wishy-washy wall of processing (an issue exacerbated by the decision to record the piano far away). The overall effect is unpleasant, to say the least.
Aside from the main theme, the rest of the score is heavily atmospheric. Pads and synths abound with no melody or theme guiding them. Most of the time the effect is inoffensive, yet on more than one occasion will threaten to crush your soul. The worst offender in this category is the nine-minute cue ‘Final Moments’. In the first half, a theme-less, one-note combination of electronics plods along with seemingly no real purpose until it builds and reaches ear-drum-bursting volumes. These portions of the score ostensibly serve no other purpose than to create a mood, and in that sense one could call them a success. I just wish that such success could have been accomplished with just a little more creativity and variety in both instrumentation and composition.
While there are a few positive elements (like some of the light guitar moments, ‘Growing’ being a particular highlight), the negatives far outweigh the positives and as such this score has to be labeled a disappointment. With such oppressive electronic processing, questionable recording techniques, a generic and forgettable main theme, and theme-less, occasionally overbearing atmospheric writing, the score album for Only the Brave is solely for those who either seek a memento from the film or adore everything that sounds like Zimmer/RC. This is a real shame, since Trapanese has exhibited real promise in the past and shown that he is a truly talented composer.