The key to ‘First Man’s’ best chance of landing an Oscar? That heavenly theremin-heavy score

When “First Man,” about the events surrounding Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the lunar surface in 1969, touched down at film festivals in the fall, critics in attendance were over the moon for its visual effects and technical achievements as well as for the performances of Ryan Gosling as Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife, Janet.

But Damien Chazelle‘s follow-up to “La La Land” didn’t quite blast off box-office-wise when it opened in theaters on Oct. 12. It came in third with a gross of $16 million in its first weekend, but ended up with a disappointing total of $45 million domestic and $55 million overseas. In comparison, 2016’s “La La Land” took in $151 domestic and $446 million worldwide. The festival frenzy never carried over to the public and its hopes for picture, directing screenplay and acting nominations — save for Foy, who was up for supporting actress at the Golden Globes — fizzled

There are, however, some below-the-line saving graces with the technical categories, especially effects and cinematography considering the praise heaped upon the moon-landing sequence that was shot in 16mm, 35mm and IMAX 70mm. But its most likely nomination and actual victory will likely be for Justin Hurwitz‘s  innovative and haunting score, which has already collected a Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice Award.

While “2001: A Space Odyssey” relied on grandiose classical music for its signature fanfare, specifically the “Sunrise” portion of Richard Strauss‘ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” Hurwitz takes his cues from ’50s sci-fi films, specifically his use of a theremin to create an otherworldly and eerie effect. The composer, who won Oscars for his original “La La Land” score and for co-writing the song, “City of Stars,” wanted to capture the alienating effect that such a historic interstellar journey would have on Armstrong.  A theremin, which was invented by and named for Leon Theremin in 1920, is an instrument played by waving your hands between two metal antenna. If you have ever heard “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, you have heard a theremin.

Yes, cheaply staged outer-space invasions often involved the sound of out-of-this-world waves of electronic sounds. But as Hurwitz has said, “I love that the theremin is kind of an intersection between technology and humanity. It’s obviously a piece of tech …  but because of the way you play it with your body, it’s so expressive and really become an expression of how you are feeling.”

More than a few Academy Award contenders integrated such sounds to build suspense and the sense that something is amiss and unusual:

*”The Lost Weekend” (1945): One of the first films to employ the theremin was Billy Wilder‘s unsettling depiction of alcoholism when its star, Ray Milland, suffers the effects of a bender. It was Oscar-nominated for seven Oscars and won four: picture, director, actor and adapted screenplay.

*”Spellbound” (1945). Of course, Alfred Hitchcock would want to employ such a sound to unnerve his audiences in his exploration of psychosis and psychotics as Ingrid Bergman treats Gregory Peck, who might be a paranoid schizophrenic, a killer or just a victim. The psychological thriller was nominated for six Oscars , its lone win was for composer Miklos Rozsa, who also did the score for “The Lost Weekend.”

*”Forbidden Planet (1956): The sci-fi outing employed the plot of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as Leslie Nielsen‘s spaceship captain encounters Walter Pidgeon and daughter Anne Francis as the only surviving members of a lost Earth colony along with Robby the Robot. The film is noteworthy for being the source of the first all-electronic score, composed by a married couple, Louis and Bebe Barron, who were denied Oscar consideration and music credits since their work wasn’t deemed to be music. The movie was nominated for Special Visual Effects.

*”Ed Wood” (1994): Tim Burton‘s ode to the enthusiastic though inept filmmaker behind  the deliciously cheesy “Plan Nine From Outer Space” helped to renew interest in the theremin, joining in a revival spurred by the documentary, “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” about its inventor and his instrument. Burton’s film won two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi and Best Makeup for Rick Baker, Ve Neill and Yolanda Tussineg.

Click on the arrow below and get a sample of Hurwitz’s use of the theremin:

 

 

 

 

 

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