How can a movie capture an experience that everyone in the world has heard about, but only an extremely privileged few will ever get to have firsthand?
Well, for starters, it’s got to have the right music.
That’s the task composer Justin Hurwitz faced when he signed up for First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s telling of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. But while reading Josh Singer’s script, Hurwitz was most struck by how alienating the trip must have been for Armstrong.
“I really responded to this idea in the script that after Neil went to the moon, he would be very alone for the rest of his life, a stranger from the rest of humanity,” he told Mashable in an email, “because nobody else has had the experience he had, and seen the things he has seen.”
First Man wasn’t entirely unfamiliar territory for Hurwitz. He’d worked with Chazelle before on three other movies, including the musical smash hit La La Land. But both knew they’d have to find “a new kind of flavor” for this story. To that end, they experimented with electronic instruments – like the theremin, stereotypically associated with the sci-fi genre.
“I love that the theremin is kind of an intersection between technology and humanity,” said Hurwitz. “It is obviously a piece of tech, and there’s a real electronic quality to the way that it sounds, but because of the way that you play it with your body, it’s so expressive and can really become an extension of how you’re feeling.”
“Plus,” he added, “We found that it could take on a real wailing or crying quality.”
It’s that quality that comes through in the track above, which plays in the movie as Neil leaves home for his trip to the moon. In a voiceover, a NASA official reads the statement they’ve prepared in case Neil and his crew never return.
It’s a powerful, poignant moment, even if, in 2018, we already know darn well how his journey ends. And for Hurwitz, the scene presented an unexpected challenge.
He and Chazelle had worked out the main themes of the movie a year earlier, and planned to score the entire film with variations on those melodies. When Chazelle and editor Tom Cross showed Hurwitz this sequence, however, it was with instructions to figure out something “totally new.”
“[Chazelle] was looking for something more dramatic and tragic than any of the themes we already had, and asked for it to be ‘operatic’ in how it would grow and grow throughout the sequence, exploding into a huge brass chord as we cut to the shot of the Saturn rocket sitting on the launchpad,” said Hurwitz.
The resulting track, “Contingency Plan,” starts out small and ends up epic. Hurwitz presents an intimate plea and a grand declaration, a celebration of big ambitions and a warning of same. It’s probably nothing like what Armstrong actually heard in the hours leading up to the landing. But it’s just the right music to make us feel, just for a moment, like we’re right there with this great and lonely man.
The score to First Man will be released with the film’s theatrical release on Friday, Oct. 12.