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FIRST MAN – Justin Hurwitz

November 2, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Since almost the beginning of human civilization, man has had a special relationship with the moon. For millennia it fascinated and lured thinkers and scholars, all of whom theorized about what was up there, what it was made of, how did it get there, and – eventually – whether we would ever visit it. Many of those questions were answered on July 20, 1969, when three brave American astronauts – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – touched down on the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, and Armstrong himself became the first human in history to set foot on our celestial partner in the sky. Director Damien Chazelle’s film First Man tells the story of these events, with Ryan Gosling playing Armstrong, Claire Foy playing his wife Janet, and character actors such as Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas in supporting roles.

However, rather than being a rousing, patriotic, celebratory film, First Man is more of a character study of Armstrong himself. It looks at the toll the experience took on him and his family, and hammers home just how ridiculously dangerous – and possibly foolhardy – those early adventures in space were. In 2018 launching a rocket into outer space is a commonplace event, but in the 1960s things were very different. Their lunar module had less computing power than the device I’m typing this review on. It had less than my cell phone. The entire endeavor was held together with bolts and solder and strips of electrician’s tape, and nobody knew whether they were going to make it back alive. But it was that pioneer spirit, and his dogged tenacity, that drove Armstrong to eventually take his place in human history. First Man doesn’t shy away from presenting the early days of NASA exactly as it was, with all its flaws, and that gives the film an immediacy and a grounded reality that makes it compelling – you can sense the danger, you can hear the creaks and groans of the metal, and you can hear the panicked breathing when things go wrong – which means you celebrate their eventual triumph when it finally happens.

All three of Chazelle’s feature films to date – Whiplash, La La Land, and now First Man – have been scored by his long-time friend from Harvard, composer Justin Hurwitz, but whereas Whiplash and La La Land were both films about music, First Man is Hurwitz’s first film score that is all drama. Although he won an Oscar for scoring La La Land in 2016, First Man required Hurwitz to take a completely different approach, and I for one was very curious to see whether he could translate that song score success into a more dynamic dramatic setting. The answer is a resounding yes; Hurwitz’s music is a major key to the film’s impact. It’s raw and visceral, in your face and grating, speaking to the heart stopping bravery and almost inconceivable danger the astronauts willingly put themselves through to achieve immortality. It’s also personal and intimate, using harps and delicate synths to underscore the relationship between Armstrong and his wife Janet. And then, in its finale, it’s majestic and rousing, raising its voice and allowing the audience to celebrate one of the crowning scientific achievements in the history of our species.

Thematically, the score appears to be a combination of three recurring ideas: one for Neil himself, one for Neil’s relationship with his family and especially the memory of his daughter Karen, and one for NASA. Karen’s Theme is the emotional heart of the score, and it appears for the first time in the third cue, “Karen.” The theme is built around a lyrical motif reminiscent of one of the romantic themes from La La Land, and as the score progresses it recurs again and again, a reminder of what it is that’s actually most important to Neil: his family, his wife, his children, and the memory of his late daughter, for whom he continues to grieve in his most private moments. Hurwitz usually arranges the theme for either harp or strings, but one of the most interesting musical devices is his recurring use of a theremin. The theremin has of course been a staple in space-set movies for years, ever since Bernard Herrmann famously used it in The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, but Hurwitz’s use of it in First Man is not as a way of suggesting other-worldliness. Instead, Hurwitz uses the theremin as a replacement for the human voice, eschewing the potential for mawkishness that can sometimes come with the over-use of choir, and instead making it tender and intimate.

Statements of Karen’s Theme litter the score: on theremin underpinned by shimmering synths in “It’ll Be an Adventure,” to accompany the birth of his son “Baby Mark,” and in several others besides. “Squawk Box” uses the theme as a clever piece of musical juxtaposition, accompanying a scene of desperate heightened tension as Janet listens nervously to her in-home NASA communications device while her husband is in peril in space. Conversely, “Docking Waltz” arranges the theme as a rich, classical waltz in the style of Strauss, accompanied by unusual and impressionistic electronic textures, and the theremin again mimicking the sound of a human voice.

The first secondary theme is the theme for Neil Armstrong himself; a rhythmic, hypnotic, undulating piece that speaks to the strength of character, perseverance, and steadfastness of the man from Wapakoneta. It first appears in “Armstrong Cabin” as a duet for two harps accompanied by the merest hint of a theremin; later, “Sextant” presents a gentle, almost lullaby-like variation that is soothing. Meanwhile, “The Armstrongs” offsets the theme against a bed of palpably desolate-sounding synths, which seek to speak to the tensions that arise within the Armstrong family unit as a result of Neil’s relentless pursuit of his dreams.

The other secondary theme is a motif for NASA itself, a rhythmic, pulsating, undulating set of guitar chords underpinned by chugging electronics, which attempt to capture the hustle and bustle of the men and women who sacrificed so much in the pursuit of scientific progress. Cues like “Another Egghead” and “Multi-Axis Trainer” feature the NASA motif strongly, while in “First to Dock” the motif is accompanied by rhythmic electronics which sometimes have the tone and timbre of NASA’s machinery, clunking and rattling with metallic intensity. I also very much like the upbeat variation of the NASA Motif in “Houston,” which throbs with an energetic, lively, can-do spirit, uses prominent strings and woodblocks, and has hints of Karen’s theme in the woodwinds. The “End Credits” cue also presents a major extended statement of the NASA Motif to round out the score.

Where these themes are not present, Hurwitz often engages in some quite intense, aggressive electronic writing that has an immediacy and an urgency and a sense of impending danger to it that captures the tone of the film. This is clearly evident in the opening cue, “X-15,” which sees the synths underpinned with droning strings and a battery of buzzing, whining sound effects. A lot of the electronics have an unusual ‘shimmering’ effect to them which to me seems to be an attempt to capture through music the concept of light and sound bending and refracting as it passes from space and into Earth’s atmosphere. This is apparent in cues such as “Searching for the Aegena,” and the vividly dissonant “Spin,” and it’s very clever.

Of course everything eventually builds up to the finale of the film – the rocket launch and the lunar landing itself. “Apollo 11 Launch,” despite clearly being temp-tracked with music from the end of John Powell’s scor United 93, is a fascinating cue because it tempers this moment of clear groundbreaking triumph with the gnawing worry that Armstrong is sacrificing all he holds dear, and potentially losing his family for this moment of glory and lasting legacy. Layers of modular synths compete with string tremolos, theremin wails, percussion hits, and even some rousing brass chords, and gradually build into something grand and imposing.

After a few low-key electronic cues – “Translunar,” “Moon,” “Tunnel” – the pièce de résistance comes in “The Landing.” Here, finally, Hurwitz allows his music to truly soar with a series of majestic thematic statements that combine the main themes with a sense of dramatic purpose and inevitability. Neil’s theme is framed with the feeling of destiny and nobility, carried by strings and underpinned with forthright, near militaristic percussion. Karen’s theme interjects frequently on heraldic brasses – the first time the two themes are played in juxtaposition in the same cue – reminding the listener of what it is that’s actually driving Neil on. The relentless rhythmic drive reminds me of Philip Glass, or Michael Nyman, or perhaps some of the best parts of The Last of the Mohicans. It’s a quite mesmerizing experience, and in the context of the film it’s one of the most striking combinations of sound and image this year.

“Crater” presents a lonely, but emotionally poignant statement of Karen’s theme on theremin, as Neil stands alone at the rim of a vast lunar crater and tosses his late daughter’s bracelet into the darkness, a silent act of remembrance and catharsis. After Neil and the Apollo 11 astronauts have safely returned home, “Quarantine” underscores the reunion meeting between Neil and Janet – but they are partitioned by a glass wall, still separated from each other. The wall acts as a symbolic reference for everything that has been slowly keeping them apart – Karen’s death, Neil’s job, his unexpectedly cold demeanor – as Neil’s theme plays on solo harp, and Karen’s theme plays contrapuntally on theremin. It’s a beautiful, but slightly detached way to end the film (and the score), but it’s appropriate in context, and speaks to what would ultimately become of their relationship – they separated in 1990, and divorced in 1994, after 38 years of marriage.

I personally think that First Man is a triumph, but I can certainly understand how many would be disappointed at the lack of overt patriotism and rousing fanfare in the score. This is not The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, and nor is it meant to be. Whereas those films rightly celebrated the iconic achievements of the brave Americans who first went to space, this film is a much smaller experience, a character study which looks at the human cost of the whole endeavor, and what it was like for those left behind on Earth, not knowing whether their husbands would ever return home. Once you understand this aspect of the film’s nature, and what Chazelle and Hurwitz were trying to convey with it, then their success quickly becomes apparent. First Man is a quite masterful score, a wonderful blending of three interesting themes with some of the most unique and creative orchestrations I have heard in years, anchored by one of the most outstanding cues of the year in “The Landing.” If Hurwitz doesn’t pick up his second Best Score Oscar nomination for this, I will be astonished.

Buy the First Man soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • X-15 (1:23)
  • Good Engineer (1:07)
  • Karen (0:46)
  • Armstrong Cabin (1:16)
  • Another Egghead (1:05)
  • It’ll Be an Adventure (0:41)
  • Houston (2:16)
  • Multi-Axis Trainer (2:54)
  • Baby Mark (0:48)
  • First to Dock (1:28)
  • Elliot (0:29)
  • Sextant (1:46)
  • Squawk Box (1:55)
  • Searching for the Aegena (1:51)
  • Docking Waltz (3:23)
  • Spin (1:15)
  • Naha Rescue 1 (1:05)
  • Pat and Janet (1:34)
  • The Armstrongs (2:26)
  • I Oughta Be Getting Home/Plugs Out (1:11)
  • News Report (0:43)
  • Dad’s Fine (1:04)
  • Whitey on the Moon (feat. Leon Bridges) (1:48)
  • Neil Packs (1:26)
  • Contingency Statement (1:57)
  • Apollo 11 Launch (5:50)
  • Translunar (1:02)
  • Moon (1:07)
  • Tunnel (0:52)
  • The Landing (5:32)
  • Moon Walk (1:30)
  • Home (1:52)
  • Crater (2:00)
  • Quarantine (2:15)
  • End Credits (4:19)
  • Sep Ballet (Bonus Track) (1:17)

Running Time: 65 minutes 14 seconds

Back Lot Music (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Justin Hurwitz. Orchestrations by Justin Hurwitz. Recorded and mixed by Nick Baxter. Edited by Jason Ruder, Mateo Barragan and Lena Glikson. Album produced by Justin Hurwitz.

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  1. November 2, 2018 at 10:13 am

    Terrific and spot on review Jon. Went to see the film in the cinema and yes, the score is so integral. The Landing is firmly on my Best Cue list for this year!

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