Music Review…Mondo’s Stellar Release of Justin Hurwitz’s ‘First Man’ Score

In the span of just three scores, composer Justin Hurwitz has taken tremendous steps forward covering new ground in his musical career. The soundtrack to Damien Chazelle‘s First Man is tailored specifically to the film, but not necessarily the literal narrative beats. The film follows Neil Armstrong, and as such, it’s less about NASA as an organization and more about the titular “first man.” We get to witness all the mental, physical, psychological and spiritual tests that lead to his historic steps on the Moon.  

The film opens on a period in Armstong’s life that doesn’t really define or explain his demeanor and drive, but it sure focuses it. Some of the very first musical notes of the film play over the Armstrong family dealing with their young daughter’s cancer diagnosis. What follows is the story of how Neil is forever haunted by Karen’s death. Those soft and tender cues become the building blocks for the rest of this musical journey.

While Chazelle’s first two pictures let us rally behind the main character, here he strips away fanfare, heroics, even emotion to chronicle important moments in Neil Armstrong’s life. First Man paints him as a man – not a national icon – faults and all. Chief among them, actually, is his robotic drive. As Gosling states in the film, “We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.” He’s got sights set on the sky, often ignoring what’s right in front of him.  

One thing is clear: Chazelle wants us to understand that getting to the Moon was no easy task. Every single step courted both failure and death. Like the astronauts-to-be who seem robbed of success at every turn, so are we kept from feeling satisfaction along with Neil for any achievement or marked progress. What would be crowd-cheering moments are void of feeling because Chazelle did not set out to make your garden variety drama.

This fly-on-the-wall approach to one of the most significant achievements of our lifetime lacks the feel (both narratively and sonically) of other space-themed stories from Apollo 13 to The Martian. Like a curated collection of home videos rather than a thrilling cinematic experience, Chazelle drops us into specific moments in Armstrong’s saga (some very exciting) and most of the film, if not all, plays out free of exposition, and, many times, a pulse. First Man exists as a character study without any real character in it, and the result is a story where you’ll feel every bit of the 135-minute run time.

Now it’s not to say that it’s not fulfilling – the characters and visuals are amplified by the music and the stakes in the story. But the emptiness to Armstrong’s portrayal can leave you feeling cold, like deep space cold. First Man builds and builds into a highly stirring finale, one where Hurwitz’s music really becomes the most full-bodied, florid, and cinematic.

Also, the tone and the selection of instruments for this score are varied and unexpected (much in the same way as Kubrick selected source music for 2001: A Space Odyssey) as we are treated to an orchestra consisting of harps, woodwinds, select brass pulses, driving mechanical percussion, a Vangelis-type synthesizer, and the alien-sounding Theremin.

The film – stripped of the jingoism of the era – relies on the audience (in what feels like real-time) breathlessly willing Armstrong to successfully complete the mission…one they know full well he did. Yet it doesn’t make it any less engaging, and Hurwitz’ composition really captures that feeling of anticipation, uncertainty, and fear of failure. Gosling’s portrayal of the machine-like Armstrong is underscored by an equally focused theme that drifts back and forth between calculating and melancholic. 

Looking back, we see the space race as a success, and it somehow makes it look easy. But every endeavor – including the spellbinding, and interminably prolonged landing on the lunar surface – was nothing more than controlled chaos. Armstrong, like the other pioneers in the program, solved problems to achieve success. It seems it was a tall order to channel all of that, yet Hurwitz nailed it. 

From the official Mondo product page, we learn a bit more about Hurwitz’s approach to this score:

The film’s harmonious score features orchestra mixed with vintage electronics, including the Theremin. Regarding that choice of instrumentation, Hurwitz said, “As soon as I found the main theme at the piano, Damien suggested using a Theremin to express that melody throughout the movie. I got one and started learning to play it and loved how emotional and expressive the instrument could be. With its wailing quality, we were able to capture the type of cosmic pain that suited Neil’s story.”

The cover of this release has a real nostalgic touch (Marc Aspinall’s artwork borrows heavily from The Right Stuff) and the layout recalls another era-specific throwback effort in Mondo’s catalog: the well-crafted Mission: Impossible score. Mondo/Back Lot Music’s First Man looks legit vintage, and the matte print helps bring it all together. On the inside, however, it’s a little different.

Just as the film progresses in tandem with technological advancements over time (watch it again, and you’ll see that as the years go by, the quality of the visuals gets noticeably sharper), the gatefold is a startlingly clear shot of Armstrong (Gosling) on the Moon. It’s a reverent decision to showcase such a monumental achievement in the clearest format possible. It’s simply stunning.

This release is pressed on 180 Gram Lunar Surface Grey vinyl* and also available on 180 Gram Black vinyl.

Check out the tracklist below…


Tracklist:

Side A
01. X-15
02. Karen
03. Armstrong Cabin
04. It’ll Be An Adventure
05. Houston
06. Multi-Axis Trainer
07. Lunar Rhapsody – Performed by Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman feat. Les Baxter
08. Squawk Box
09. Docking Waltz
10. The Armstrongs
11. I Oughta Be Getting Home / Plugs Out
12. News Report
13. Whitey on the Moon – Performed by Leon Bridges
14. Contingency Statement

Side B
15. Apollo 11 Launch
16. Translunar
17. Moon
18. The Landing
19. Moon Walk
20. Crater
21. Quarantine
22. End Credits


Like their two previous efforts, Chazelle and Hurwitz have developed a sound that works both with the film and as a standalone listening experience. You’ll get Whiplash thinking about how quickly this tune and themes become ingrained in your head, and you’ll be in La La Land, or rather, over the moon with each listen. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

*From the Mondo press release:

The “lunar surface grey” color way discs turned out more translucent than previously advertised. This happens from time to time with vinyl manufacturing. Because of it, Mondo offered something special to make amends for those not expecting such a deviation from the previously advertised variant. For anyone who pre-ordered the record, we have 250 copies signed by the composer of the film, Justin Hurwitz, that will be randomly inserted into shipments.