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Soundtrack review: First man (Justin Hurwitz – 2018)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: First man (Justin Hurwitz – 2018)

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“First Man” is a 2018 American biographical drama film directed by Damien Chazelle and written by Josh Singer, based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, alongside Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas, and follows the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969. Steven Spielberg serves as an executive producer. Justin Jurwitz wrote the score.

So a couple of years after creating a fantasy that I couldn’t connect with, “La La Land”, Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling and Justin Hurwitz team up again to bring to the screen a reality that was the biggest fantasy for a lot of people. I did not enjoy LLL but I loved the score, the best part of the whole thing. I can’t help but notice though how this score is a bit over an hour long but has no fewer than 36 cues and this is something that usually worries me.

What made his music for “La La Land” work so well for me was the sweeping and intense romance, the sound of the most wonderful fantasy. Somehow since this movie focuses more on Neil Armstrong and his inner tribulations, his emotions related to his huge, unimaginable adventure I expected the music to be more, well…emotional. In the opening parts of the album the composer focuses more on space, I think the temptation was too big for him since this is a movie about the first man on the moon. As the cues go by – some by the book optimistic and vivacious, other dramatic, all of them very well written musically, no complains there since this is a very talented and melody inclined composer – I can’t help but remember James Horner’s score for “Apollo 13” and imagine how he would have written this particular score. I think the story needed more dramatic impact, more emotional depth than I am getting here.

Justin Hurwtiz wrote a more descriptive score for “First man” than I expected; there are some macho guitar musings for obligatory astronaut boasting, but then again, the “Star Trek” reboot had those as well plus a bar fight and the music felt better. There are colder cues that describe technical parts of the story, the Houston HQ, the training, and so most of the score goes by rather coldly. The quieter moments when I do get a bit of the emotional release I’m looking for are scarce and short, like “Armstrong cabin” or “Baby mark”. Short motifs that are introduced early on are repeated throughout this score, stalling its progress. There are beautiful pieces like the almost period sounding “Sextant” and the ambient like “Squawk box” but ironically they barely fit with the rest of the score. And when I see a cue titles “Docking waltz” and I remember Hans Zimmer’s passionate music for a similar sequence in “Interstellar”, it bears no comparison. Still it’s one of the cue where traces of the goose bumps inducing sweeping fantasy of “La La Land” finally show up.

For “First man” Justin Hurwitz went for a somewhat quirky space sound which might please listeners or work in the movie but it was not what I was looking for from this score. Just from listening to the music I didn’t get the emotional turmoil, the excitement of the flight, the doubts, the triumph. I didn’t hear Neil Armstrong in this score except for that light guitar motif that keep repeating itself; it might have worked for a regular drama but this is a story about one of the heroes of our times, the first man on the moon, and unfortunately, save some few precious moments, while writing a good score from the musical point of view, Justin Hurwitz captured the mystery of space very well but failed to capture the grandeur and weight of the story. He nailed the launch and the landing but everything before, in between and after was not as good.

Cue rating: 76 / 100

Highlights:
Sextant
Apollo 11 Launch
The Landing
Crater
Quarantine

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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