Hidden Figures and the music of the spheres

The music in every movie must always support the story. It connects and immerses the audience into the world of the characters. In Hidden Figures, the music pushes the audience beyond sympathy from mere observation, engaging us in the experience through an almost personal connection.

In a way that no movie about the human exploration of space had ever done before, the music has to also simultaneously plunge us into the 1960s America, with its degradation of the female sex and the segregation of the African-American communities.

Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch composed the music for Hidden Figures. Their contributions achieve three main goals. Firstly, in the bigger picture, it creates a sense of significance and urgency in the competition of scientific progress of humankind. Secondly, the music also set the 60’s atmosphere of America, specifically of the African-American community. Thirdly, it aids the script in its conveyance of a change in dynamic in both the speech and action-driven parts of a scene.

The music of Hidden Figures begins by submerging us into the inner workings of Katherine Goble’s mathematical brain from early childhood. Its cyclical and rhythmic orchestral sequences, imitating a metronome ticking to the speed of a calculating brain, become a recurring theme throughout the movie. As a backdrop to the story, it provides a consistency throughout the film that the viewer comes to associate with suspense and intellectual acumen.

The diegetic music (such as when Goble, Jackson, and Vaughan play music on their car radio), sets the hip 60’s scene and paints the environment the characters live in. The status of the African-American community is shown especially well through the first of Pharrell Williams’ tracks for the movie. Titled “Runnin’”, it not only sets the atmosphere, but also reflects the inner thoughts of protagonist Katherine Goble Johnson as she realizes that to relieve herself, she must run to the segregated restroom on the other side of the campus. Feelings of helplessness, inequality, and determination are evident.

Another example of the music pulling the audience closer to the scene is the climactic dynamic-shifting moment during one of the first conversations between Katherine and Al Harrison (director of the Space Task Group). The dramatic undertone of the soundtrack highlights the waves of emotion the protagonist feels. It is in that moment, while he is talking to Katherine, that the audience feels hope together with Katherine and belief that finally someone might be on her side.

Oftentimes, the music begins during an action, whether it is the opening of a door or the revving of a car engine. Different actions and environments call for different styles of music, and in the beginning, this switching between styles of music may feel a little jolting. However, it soon becomes evident that a lot is happening both with the music and the people, and that the styles of music reflect the inner conflict of the characters. The struggles between social injustices and inner will are echoed through the shifting selection of songs as we, the viewers, come to better understand the problems prevalent in a 1960s America riddled, as it certainly was then, with sexism and racism.

© Katusha Jin (2/23/17) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: 20th Century Fox Corporation

BONUS: Follow this link to listen to “Runnin'” on YouTube 🙂

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Katusha Jin joined FF2 Media’s team in 2017 whilst she was still a film student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2019 she was the recipient of SCMP’s journalism scholarship and studied under the mentorship of an Oscar award-winning documentary director in Hong Kong. She went on to receive her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong where she graduated with distinction. Katusha has previously worked in the advertising industry, and when she is not writing for FF2 Media, she can be found working on films as a director, producer, and writer. As a trilingual filmmaker, her experiences have cultivated an interest in the intersection between cultural diversity and creativity, and she brings that to her work both as a creative and as a critic. She is also a voice-over hobbyist, a fitness enthusiast, a student of comedy, and is always on the lookout for musical and theatrical collaborations.
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