Justin Hurwitz’s score to First Man is fantastic, but honestly I expected a little more from him. The Landing is very much the standout piece of music, and because of how great it is the rest of the album pales in comparison.
I decided to publish my review a little early this week, mainly because I knew I would be writing it far sooner than most albums. I have been a fan of film scores for a long time, and my favourite genre by far is space music – particularly the likes of Interstellar, Gravity and Oblivion (OK, that last one isn’t technically a space movie but it does have very space-y music). When First Man was first announced, I was pretty happy. This feeling then switched up to genuine excitement when Justin Hurwitz was announced as composer – judging from La La Land I knew he could make amazing award-winning music, and so from then on I had high hopes for his score to First Man. Then, a track from the album entitled The Landing was released last week, and my excitement burned even brighter. It was fantastic – combining the mystery of outer space with loud, almost heroic brass. So when I sat down this morning to listen to the entire score for the first time, I won’t deny how eager I was.
The album opens with X-15 (a rocket plane used by NASA, for those interested) and Hurwitz immediately sets the tone with some very ominous-sounding synthesizer notes. After a few seconds, the unique element of the score makes itself known – a theramin. I remember an interview Hurwitz gave a few weeks ago where he said he wanted to have a retro approach with his score to First Man, and the result of that presumably is his use of the theramin throughout the album. It’s used only lightly here in X-15, just in combination with the synthesizer to further the rather suspenseful tone. However, it’s still very tonally effective, so props to Hurwitz for choosing a relatively unknown and nowadays unused instrument that actually works surprisingly well.
Karen and Armstrong Cabin then introduce the two main themes of the score. Karen starts with the simpler one, a soft ten note motif that is played out slowly using strings and the theramin over the short thirty second track. The secondary main theme then gets similar treatment in Armstrong Cabin. It’s a much more upbeat and rapid piece than the primary theme, and is designed to repeat continuously in a more light-hearted manner, a musical idea which presents itself primarily in Houston. More traditional orchestra takes over here, with mainly strings in combination with percussion playing out the theme in a more fleshed out and indeed happier manner than the past few tracks. Overall, the theme from Karen is thematically stronger (at least in my opinion) but the Armstrong Cabin one is still very much a necessary part of the score, especially given how well the two come together in the standout cue.
The first hints of the score taking a more dramatic direction appear in First To Dock, a track that primarily just fleshes out a very industrial sounding theme introduced in Multi-Axis Trainer. There are however a few little hints of brass and ominous theramin notes, all pointing towards the idea that the music is building up to something. This idea is then reinforced by Sextant and Squawk Box, both short tracks that just flesh out the two main themes a little more. All they do is add more strings and a little increase in backing theramin, but that slight increase in volume and intensity does a great job of slowing edging the music towards something greater. One of the biggest strengths of Hurwitz’s First Man is how it builds up its themes towards a loud and dramatic end, and that building begins here.
The Armstrongs is a very family-oriented piece, being essentially a more romantic and happier rendition of the secondary main theme. There is a little more going on in the background here – some more strings and a little more detail in the theme to just flesh it out a little more. The build-up is more prominent than ever here, which is encouraging given how…(I don’t want to say dull)…slow the score has been so far. That actually is one of my biggest criticisms of the album as a whole – it takes a very long time to really start interesting me. The score is just over an hour long, and I would say it takes a good forty minutes to actually get to the good bits. Don’t get me wrong – the first half of the score does provide some much needed fleshing out of the various themes, but it is a little boring to listen to. The strength of First Man lies in it’s dramatic brass, and there just isn’t any for a long time.
The album does however finally start to get going in I Oughta Be Getting Home. The theramin and the rather haunting tone both return here, and after a few seconds there are some rumblings of brass until we finally get a loud and proud trumpeting statement. It’s short, but very effective at telling you it’s message; We’re almost there!
Contingency Statement then opens with a rather ominous main theme rendition by the theramin, and that then morphs rather cleverly into strings and then some more long awaited brass. It is then at that point, Ladies and Gentlemen, that we arrive at the launch.
Ah, Apollo 11 Launch. I both love and despise thee. We are now at the point at which First Man quite literally takes off, and as soon as it begins we are introduced to some rapid and dramatic-sounding synthesizer notes in combination with that now famous theramin. Strings then introduce a brand new, rather heroic motif along with some brief appearances of brass. The music then takes a little break, with some rather ambient synthesizer notes until a minute or so later when that heroic theme returns, a little more brassy and louder than before. The pace then starts to build-up, percussion takes up the background and the score starts to go. Strings make a return – the music gets faster and faster – quiet percussion turns to loud drums – brass takes centre stage – and the track ends. Wait, what? It’s like Interstellar all over again. What is it with composers and their extraordinary ability to build up and get the music to just before it ought to explode in an amazing and epic manner, and then just stop? How is this humanly possible? I know that if I was a composer I couldn’t do it. I’d have to follow through. It’s incredibly frustrating, and it definitely puts a bit of a sour mood on what is otherwise a pretty fantastic track.
Not to worry though, we have The Landing up next. As it begins, you can tell immediately that this is the magnum opus of First Man. There’s just something about it. The way the strings open with a loud and very dramatic repeating playthrough of the secondary main theme, the way brass slowly builds up behind it for a good two minutes until it literally explodes with a glorious rendition of primary main theme, the mysterious and captivating nature of the track as a whole – it’s all just fantastic. All these different elements come together to create a near masterpiece of space music. All the build-up has been leading to this, and it’s well worth the wait.
The only thing that I will say in criticism is the track does take a little too long to get going – nearly two minutes of repeating notes before the main theme kicks in. Said main theme also only lasts for thirty seconds before the repeating notes then take over again, and I do feel they should have been in it more. Still, what we did get was absolutely mind-blowing, and so The Landing most definitely wins standout cue.
The score then draws to a close with End Credits, a track that is essentially just a more fleshed out and dramatic take on the industrial theme used in Multi-Axis Trainer and First To Dock. It’s annoyingly not an end credits suite, which is a bit of a shame considering there are so many iconic moments throughout the score that could have been conveniently compiled together here for a really amazing suite. Guess I’ll have to do that myself, then.
Overall, the score to First Man is pretty spectacular. The way Justin Hurwitz perfectly captures the mysterious and suspenseful nature of space is superb, and at points you really feel just how awed and at the same time terrified the astronauts must have been as they rocketed towards the Moon, so he did a great job there too. However, I honestly couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed at the overall album experience. The score builds-up its themes incredibly well, but it takes a long time and so makes for a very dull forty minutes before the music finally kicks into gear with the likes of Apollo 11 Launch and The Landing. Still, once it did finally get there the score performed excellently, especially when the two main themes finally came together. By the end, I found myself only wanting a little more rather than feeling really let down, which is pretty good by today’s standards.
First Man isn’t perfect, but it is very very good.
Standout Cue: 30. The Landing