Monday, November 5, 2018

Quick Review: First Man

First Man
Music composed by Justin Hurwitz
Music orchestrated and conducted by Justin Hurwitz
Soundtrack running time: 67 minutes
Available on Back Lot Records

After their Oscar winning success on La La Land (2016), Justin Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle continue their collaboration with First Man. Based on the book of the same name, the film explores the life of Neil Armstrong - his family life, training and eventual moon landing in 1969.

Rather than the jazz influences in La La Land and Whiplash (2014), Chazelle and Hurwitz wanted to score it differently than anything they worked on before. Working with storyboards and the script, Hurwitz composed some main themes and sketched out some of the major sequences prior to the main scoring process. The instrumentation of the score is unique - Hurwitz employs the use of interesting retro electronics both as a melodic and rhythmic texture. He also liberally uses solo harp and theremin (performed by Hurwitz himself). The music often keeps the score from a personal point of view – Armstrong's family, and the loneliness that goes with space travel. The longest cues served as jumping off points for the rest of the score - the Apollo 11 launch and the landing sequence.

Two main themes support the film - Neil's theme and family theme. Both appear all through the score separately with a few tracks where they intertwine. A work theme as he prepares with NASA appears in handful of tracks.

I've decided to make a handy guide for the album as divided by main theme: Neil's theme, family theme, work theme and electronic tension.

Neil’s theme is highlighted in Armstrong Cabin, Houston, Sextant, The Armstrongs, Neil Packs, Apollo 11 Launch, The Landing, Quarantine.
Family theme is highlighted in Karen, It'll Be an Adventure, Baby Mark, Squawk Box, Docking Waltz, I Oughta Be Getting Home/Plugs Out, Contingency Statement, The Landing, Crater, Quarantine.
Work theme is featured in Another Egghead, Multi-Axis Trainer, First to Dock, Dad's Fine, End Credits.
Electronic tension is found in X-15, Good Engineer, Elliot, Searching for the Aegena, Spin, Naha Rescue 1, News Report, Translunar, Moon, Tunnel, Moon Walk.

The family theme seems to be the framework for Pat and Janet, Neil Packs and Home; while the melody in Apollo 11 Launch is derived from Neil's theme. While supporting the film, the electronic tension cues are easily the most skippable during an album listen. You might enjoy the vintage synth work he's crafted, but it's not my cup of tea. It's really The Landing and Quarantine that sum up Hurwitz's score. Neil's theme intertwined with the family theme bring all parts of the story of Neil Armstrong together.

The score is bold in its choices, and I'll give it to Hurwitz for that. The film and score don't have the overt heroics of Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff (and nor does it need to). The film and score go for a personal look at Armstrong rather than "Moon Landing: The Motion Picture". The use of theremin is a neat idea and used well in context and the moments with solo harp are simple and effective. Even with the musically fine themes, I found the album a bit of a slog. Of course film music's main goal is to support the film (which it does), so you can't rate the score on album alone. Overall, what you get is a collection of short cues that feel like thematic statements rather than letting them evolve throughout the score.

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