First Man is the sum of many impressive parts: two great performances by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as Neil and Janet Armstrong; assured direction from 2016’s best director winner Damien Chazelle; and a deeply unnerving sound design that emphasizes just how crazy it was that we launched people into space 50 years ago in what was basically a tin can strapped to a rocket.
But the film’s unlikeliest star is the theremin—an instrument you play without physically touching it.
Created by the Soviet inventor Léon Theremin in 1928, the aptly-named theremin was initially conceived during research on proximity sensors for the Soviet government, until someone realized that it sounded really cool and could be used as a musical instrument. It consists of two antennae that sense where the performer’s hands are—one hand controls pitch, and the other adjusts volume. It’s almost like a harp with no strings.
The result is an eerie, almost ghostly, wailing sound that’s perfect for evoking the mystery of space. Here’s someone playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the theremin.
Gosling, while searching for some personal connection between himself and Armstrong to help his performance, was the one to discover that Armstrong—a talented musician in his life before becoming an astronaut—was also a big fan of the theremin. He even took some theremin music with him aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft.
Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz decided that the bizarre instrument needed to be a part of the score, especially because the film was so much about Armstrong’s grief following the death of his 2-year-old daughter to a brain tumor. “There was something about the theremin that seemed to convey that grief that spanned across the cosmos,” Chazelle told Variety. “It obviously makes you think of space, but it also has those qualities of the human voice—a sort of wailing—that could feel very mournful to me.”
Indeed, the theremin sometimes sounds like a person crying out into the abyss, a high-pitched ghost. Hurwitz’s use of the instrument throughout First Man is clever and moving in equal measure. It’s part of Neil and Janet’s main theme, and it’s reprised several times throughout the film at particularly poignant moments. We first hear it very briefly in “Armstrong Cabin,” and then again at the end of “The Armstrongs.”
It’s not until Armstrong walks the lunar surface toward the end of the film do we hear a full-throated theremin section in a track called “Crater.” He stops at the edge of, yes, a crater, and stares for a long moment before unveiling his daughter’s bracelet in his hand. Then, he lets it go, and it drifts off into the dark.
This is where the tears started flowing for me, and the theremin had a role in that. It’s just so yearning, so pained, so very, very sad. This otherworldly music, coupled with Gosling’s quiet performance as man confronted with both unimaginable wonder and unfathomable heartache, is what the movies are for.