As the real world deals with uncertainty and near-constant tumult, Hollywood auteurs have slowly looked towards space as a source of inspiration and hope. Films such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s The Martian, and even Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity have used the promise of the great unknown to explore themes of loss and argue in favor of optimism. Director Damien Chazelle seeks to continue this trend with First Man, his biopic of Neil Armstrong and the moon landing, bringing along his college friend Justin Hurwitz to compose the score.
Both Chazelle and Hurwitz won Academy Awards for their previous effort La La Land, with the latter’s work almost universally praised by film music critics as well. His first score since that win, First Man sees Hurwitz both expanding his dramatic palette while also remaining in line with his voice from that previous effort.
In terms of tone, Hurwitz’s approach to First Man is a bit hard to pin down. Instead of going all-in with lyrical Americana a la Apollo 13 or opting for the sound design approach of Gravity, he goes for a more eclectic approach. This is immediately apparent on album, as “X-15” opens with ambient synths before a theremin comes in as a nod to more retro space scores. “Karen” and “Armstrong Cabin” introduce the understated classical orchestral presence that dominates most of the album, intermingling their reserved performances with icy synths to convey seriousness of the lead-up to the mission. It is only once the Apollo 11 launches that Hurwitz truly expands his scope, with fuller orchestral bringing some much-needed melodrama and personality to the sound.
While the coldness of the score’s general tone may be a departure from his work for La La Land, Hurwitz’s themes for First Man remain very much in line with that effort’s. Most prominent is an idea for harp introduced in “Armstrong Cabin” that would seem to represent the man and his family. Another harp identity specifically for Armstrong’s ill daughter Karen is introduced in her eponymous cue, while “Another Egghead” features a plucked bass idea for NASA and its training. Each is harmonically pleasing, but also very repetitious in structure, often using the same phrase multiple times in a single rendering. That repetition was prevalent in La La Land‘s themes as well, but here there is much less emotive music to distract from it.
This repetition in not only thematic structure, but also in performance of the themes hampers much of the album leading up to the launch. Tracks such as “Houston” and “Multi-Axis Trainer” simply repeat a thematic idea throughout their runtime with little variation or shifting of counterpoint. Compounding the problem is Hurwitz’s reuse of this approach in multiple cues, causing several tracks on the album to seem almost indistinguishable from each other. “Docking Waltz” is the exception of the first part of the album, turning the Karen theme into a pleasing waltz.
While he may struggle keeping that build-up engaging, Hurwitz does finally deliver once our characters are sent into space. The aforementioned “Apollo 11 Launch” turns the main theme into a Remote Control-style piece, performed slowly on strings while percussion and brass add increasing gravity. This approach comes back in “The Landing,” with the main theme as a ostinato on top of which Hurwitz adds driving electronics, woodwinds, and forceful brass.
Theremin is given a strong presence as the album comes in for a landing, providing a a haunting performance of Karen’s theme against dramatic string accompaniment in “Crater.” “Quarantine” then closes out the film with a theremin version of the theme again, but this time played against the standard harp rendering of the main theme. It’s an effective and surprisingly introspective note to end the film on, and one wishes more thematic interplay such as this had been pursued.
Taken as an album, those last few tracks of emotional material are rewarding, but not worth the slow and monotonous journey to them. Hurwitz is clearly a composer skilled at writing memorable themes, but First Man does raise some questions about his ability to craft a score that is engaging from beginning to end without the benefit of multiple song melodies from which to pull. Still, what is good here is worth hearing, but do not be surprised if a majority of the album goes in one ear and out the other.
A short 15-playlist is really all you need, and those sequences alone may be enough to garner Hurwitz more awards attention this year.
First Man by Justin Hurwitz is now available from BackLot Music.