Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment, straight from Southern California.
Hosted by John Horn
Airs Temporarily on hiatus so that our staff can help out our colleagues in the KPCC newsroom and on our other shows.
Arts & Entertainment

How composer Justin Hurwitz created the award-winning score for 'La La Land'

Composer Justin Hurwitz has worked with director Damien Chazelle for years, and the pair set their sights high when it came to creating the music of 'La La Land.'
Composer Justin Hurwitz has worked with director Damien Chazelle for years, and the pair set their sights high when it came to creating the music of 'La La Land.'
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 7MB

It's hard to say much more about "La La Land" at this point.

Despite a sustained backlash — and then a backlash against that backlash — the movie remains an Academy Award front-runner. It tied an Oscar record with 14 nominations, and that came on the heels of winning every award for which it was nominated at the Golden Globes.

Much of that success belongs to the film's music — it is a musical, after all. Composer Justin Hurwitz scored both of director Damien Chazelle's previous movies, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" and "Whiplash," but "La La Land" is something different entirely.

When we spoke with Hurwitz at the Telluride Film Festival last September, he talked about the inspirations behind the music of "La La Land," his method for composing themes for specific characters, and his collaborative process with Damien Chazelle.

Interview Highlights:

Damien Chazelle and your cinematographer have a visual idea of what they're going to do with this film — you have the sonic equivalent of the feel or design of "La La Land." So how would you describe the look or the feel of that sound?

One really defining quality of the sound of the movie — the songs and the score — is that it's all real instruments, it's all a real orchestra. There's no digital or electronic music in the score except for this one pop song that's in the movie that has a purpose to be a pop song.

Aside from that, it's a 95-piece orchestra that was all put together by Peter Rotter and the best musicians in L.A. We went to the Sony stage and just recorded a real orchestra. So the sound of real people making music in a room is one of the really defining characteristics of the score.

This is a modern-day story, yet you're talking about getting and utilizing classic sounds. Did you feel like you wanted to do a little bit of both, to have something that feels contemporary but also reminds people of what movie musicals sounded like in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, in terms of the orchestration, compositions and melodies?

Yeah, from the beginning the biggest challenge musically — just in my first conversations with Damien — was figuring out how old can meet new, and how we can create songs and a score that are in a certain tradition and inspired by our favorite movies and our favorite musicals. But at the same time we never wanted to sound like an old-fashioned musical.

We never wanted to sound like "Singin' in the Rain" or like one of the French musicals we love — "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "The Young Girls of Rochefort." We wanted to do something that was certainly inspired by those but sounded different and sounded like its own thing.

Our loftiest dream, and who knows if we accomplished this, was to create music that people could hear and would say, That sounds like "La La Land." That sounds like a new thing. That sounds like something that is its own thing.

I want to hear about a song that's pretty important in the film. It's called "City of Stars" and it's basically the theme song for Sebastian, who's played by Ryan Gosling. It's hopeful, it's wistful, it's happy and it's sad — all those things at once. How did this song come about?

With any song, I start at the piano and I work on demos for Damien. We're just trying to find melodies that will stick with you and convey the emotion and the tone that we're going for. We like to always start at the piano because you're stripping away the bells and whistles, and you're just taking the melody for what it is.

So "City of Stars" started with a piano demo, and I had to go through a lot of ideas before I got to this one. Damien says no to a lot of ideas. I'll send a demo and he'll say no. I'll send him another one and get another no. I'll send them four at a time and he might say, No, no, no, maybe.

So "maybe" is the highest praise you can get at that point?

[laughs] No, "maybe" means that usually it won't end up getting used, but that I'm on the right track. It's a long process, but when we find a melody or a theme that feels right, there's no question we did the right thing by continuing to search for it. I'm the first one to admit that I'm glad it took 25, 30 demos — however many it may be to get there — because it's usually a cut above the rest at that point.

And that's one of the reasons I love working with Damien — he gets the best out of me and he pushes me to keep going, to keep trying to do something better. We both feel like we don't settle until we have something that we both really, really love.

The film opens with a scene that is cinematically, logistically and musically ambitious. There's a huge traffic jam — people in L.A. will know that it's the carpool lane of the 105 connecting to the 110. It's incredibly hot, and before traffic starts moving again, people break out in song. Where was the starting point for "Another Day of Sun?"

That song also started at the piano demo stage, and we were searching for a tone and a feel that was energetic and ostensibly happy, but at the same time betrayed a lot of melancholy and sadness. The lyrics would end up being written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who did an amazing job. But at the time I was composing this piece, the lyrics didn't exist.

But we knew what the song would generally be about — dreamers, hopeful people coming to L.A. who have these lofty dreams but are nowhere near accomplishing them. So the refrain's about how tomorrow's going to be better and people will achieve their dreams in L.A., but currently all these characters are working jobs they don't want to be working or are living lives they don't want to live. So the song has this hopefulness, but there's a sadness to it as well, and I was trying to find that in the melody and in the harmonies I was using.

I want to talk about a song that comes very late in the movie. It's where Mia, played by Emma Stone, is going up for an audition, and it's a song that is very emotional, very reserved, and it really reveals so much of who she is and what she wants to do. Can you talk about the origin of that song, and how it evolved as you worked on it?

That song, "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," is the most special song to me because I feel like I composed it from a very pure place. I was just sitting at the piano composing, I wasn't really listening to a lot at the time — I really had no preconceived models or notions about the song, I was just sitting down at the piano to compose. I knew from Damien what the song was supposed to be about and what the emotion and the scene were supposed to be, and from that point on I was just composing.

It came out really quickly, and in fact I think it was basically the first idea. I feel like "Audition" as a song, compositionally, is the most who I am. If I had to pick one song in the movie that just feels like my voice as a composer and an orchestrator, it would be that song.

And maybe that song describes everybody who works as a creative person, as an artist, and especially those who worked on "La La Land" — they're all fools who dream, aren't they?

Yeah, the theme of that song certainly spoke to all of us. The lyric didn't exist at the time, but it's a brilliant lyric that Pasek and Paul wrote, and when I saw a draft of the lyric I was just blown away. Those words say so much and really speak to me as a young artist, and I love that moment in the script.

It's that point on Mia's journey where she can be aware of this crazy journey she's put herself on, against all odds, how much she's had to sacrifice and how painful it can be to want something so badly and to most likely not get it. Because the odds are that any given person isn't necessarily going to get exactly what they want.

It was a very poignant idea for a song. I had a lot of fun composing it, but it was an emotional process because I was really connecting to what the song was going to be about. It's my favorite song in the movie.

Get more stories like this

Delivered every Thursday, The Frame weekly email features the latest in Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment.