(Ed Note: This is something I’ve been meaning to write for over a year. Better late than never?)
“Heat” is a constant theme on the soundtrack for Hidden Figures, the 2015 movie about three black women working for NASA in the 1960s who were integral parts of the team that sent the first men to the moon. On many – if not most – of the album’s songs there’s talk of how hot it is.
Perhaps that’s Pharrell Williams, who was involved in writing, performing and curating the songs on the album, lyrically and thematically nodding to songs like “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly & The Family Stone and others from that era that were specifically about the heat of the season.
Whatever the reason, it’s a constant topic of the lyrics to the songs, many of which were written by Williams, some of them specifically for the film.
Williams, aside from his “in” as a producer for the movie, was a natural choice to compile and produce the soundtrack. The songs all sound as if they were inspired by some mix of Sly, James Brown, Al Green and Marvin Gaye, which is appropriate for the era the story is set in. That’s also how much of Williams’ musical output sounds, as if he’s trying to recreate a lost funk/R&B album from 1972, but with modern production and instrumentation.
To his credit, it’s a good album, full of catchy hooks and great messages, many of them about female empowerment and achievement. That’s in keeping with the story of the movie. And it’s actually a much more interesting approach than taking the Forrest Gump route and just compiling a mix tape of actual songs from the time in a blatant play to capitalize on nostalgia.
Notable on the album are the moments where Williams steps away from the mic. The songs featuring lead vocals by singers like Lalah Hathaway, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys are among the highlights for me.
That’s because they feel more thematically tied to the movie, even if the songs aren’t specifically about plot points or characters. The movie is about how women played such an important role that’s gone unremarked upon for almost 50 years. So why not let a group of contemporary black female singers step up here and make their mark?
Williams’ involvement with the movie, including his role in compiling the soundtrack (he also worked with Alan Silvestri on the score) was a big part of the film’s marketing campaign back in late 2016. He was interviewed fairly often and was positioned as a major component of the film’s appeal to audiences, a tactic that spoke to his star power in general and his popularity among young people who may not be regular fans of history lesson films like this. There were concerts and performances from Williams and the other artists, all of which featured the movie’s key art.
So it’s a shame more isn’t done with the soundtrack than just invoke the sound of the era. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, it’s just that more could have been made of the moment with songs that either spoke more directly to, and be more consistent with, the story and cast.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.