First Man – Docking Waltz – Justin Hurwitz
Ed and I were watching the marvelous, heart-grabbing “First Man” in the next to uppermost row in the huge Upper West Side Imax theater, when we reached the point in the narrative where Neil Armstrong is commanding the Gemini mission involving one space ship docking unto another in outer space for the first time in history, a crucial step toward making a future moon landing possible.
And Justin Hurwitz’s score suddenly took on a symphonically murmuring quality that reminded me very distinctly of something very musically familiar…
A slow build up with tremolos, with rising snippets of phrases foreshadowing a more elaborate, elegant melody to come.
I thought, are we heading where we appear to be heading?
And then, when the docking between the two rocket crafts is successfully accomplished, and a gently celebratory harp rhythm in three quarter time is struck…
I was sure. And smiled in eager anticipation.
The main melodic theme from “First Man”, so far in the movie heard mainly in 4/4 time and in wistful strains, is now joyously played as a waltz. But it was hearing the chirping of two flutes in harmonic thirds, while the rocket ships are shown turning in graceful circles, that had me guffaw appreciatively, and break movie going etiquette by whispering in Ed’s ear: “They are riffing on The Blue Danube!”
Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz” is nowadays inextricably associated with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 – A Space Odyssey”. The only classical music piece even more reframed from its original meaning as a musical paean to space travel (also thanks to Kubrick’s “2001”) is “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, by that other Strauss, Richard.
Don’t believe me that the “Docking Waltz” from “First Man” pays clever homage to “2001’s” use of “The Blue Danube Waltz”, albeit with more liberal use of the theremin? Go ahead and listen to it above, and then compare it with the two clips from “2001 – A Space Odyssey”. “2001” even includes two space ships in a docking maneuver also filmed as a slow-turning waltz.
“First Man” tips its astronaut visor to several classic films about space travel and the space program, but of course my favorite such nods would be the one with the strongest musical echoes. It’s not even the first time director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz would capture my attention with a cinematic and musical nod to their influences; I already wrote about the scene in “La La Land” that pays homage to “Cabaret”.
Anyway, I love “First Man”. It is deeply moving and grandly exciting in both its intimate and epic moments. Ryan Gosling gives perhaps the best performance of his career as the maddeningly reserved but definitely not unfeeling Neil Armstrong. My heart was in my throat out of emotion as well as adrenaline throughout.