‘La La Land’ composer Justin Hurwitz goes behind the music

May 23, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Justin Hurwitz (Highlights) (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — “A bit of madness is key, to give us new colors to see,” Emma Stone sings. “Who knows where it will lead us? And that’s why they need us!”

So “bring on the rebels” like composer Justin Hurwitz, a poet whose “ripples from pebbles” have propelled the musical “La La Land” to win a record seven Golden Globes, breaking the record by “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and earn a record 14 Oscar nods, tying “All About Eve” and “Titanic.”

Sunday is shaping up to be a big night at the Academy Awards for both Hurwitz and his old college roommate, writer/director Damien Chazelle, who won Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes while Hurwitz won a pair of Globes for Original Score and Song (“City of Stars”).

“It was very flattering,” Hurwitz told WTOP. “We worked on this for a very, very long time and were so passionate about it. I said in my speech, we put so much of ourselves into it, and that’s really the truth. So to see people responding to it this way and giving us those kind of things, it means a lot.”

While “City of Stars” has become an award-winning love note from Hollywood to Los Angeles, the melody ironically came to Hurwitz while visiting his folks in a very rural part of Waupaca, Wisconsin, where his folks keep a cottage for summer escapes from their current home in California’s Bay Area.

“I was actually at my parents’ house in Wisconsin,” Hurwitz said. “It was during the summer that I cracked that particular thing. I was just home and they have a piano there and I spend a lot of time at the piano when I’m home … just trying to find the right melody for that point in the movie. … I went through a lot of demos on that … but when I finally found that melody, we both knew that it was right.”

Hurwitz grew up in nearby Glendale, Wisconsin, getting his public education at Nicolet High School.

“I started taking piano lessons when I was about 6,” Hurwitz said. “I started composing when I was 10. My parents got me a synthesizer and a floppy-disc sequencer, this basic piece of technology where you can record tracks and layer tracks on top of each other. I was really passionate about it for a couple of years, then lost interest in composing for some reason and didn’t do it in high school.”

But when it came time to go to college, he decided he should pursue music at Harvard University.

“By the time I was going to college, I started to realize I should go into music,” Hurwitz said. “There was no other school subject I was particularly good at or that interested me. … I loved movies and the music in movies, and a lot of the best music, especially instrumental orchestral music, is being composed in movies. So, I went into college with the goal of being able to get into that field.”

Then came the fateful encounter. His freshman year, he started a band with Chazelle as the drummer.

“We took that really seriously for a while, then Damien and I quit the band and started focusing exclusively on movies,” Hurwitz said. “He was studying filmmaking, I was studying music and we started talking about how we could put what we do together. … We became roommates sophomore year and just spent an enormous amount of time together, watching movies, talking about movies.”

Those flicks included 1960s French musical classics by director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand, namely “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967).

“He turned me onto these two musicals,” Hurwitz said. “Those became two of my favorite movies, two of my favorite musicals, and huge inspirations for ‘La La Land,’ as well as the first feature that we made called ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,’ which was another musical, almost like a prototype in some ways for ‘La La Land,’ but both of those [films are] hugely inspired by those French musicals.”

Sure enough, Guy and Madeline are both names of characters in “Cherbourg.”

“Not too many people pick up on that little trivia, but it’s true,” Hurwitz said. “I actually didn’t realize that until years after I was already a fan of ‘Cherbourg.’ … It was like on probably my 10th viewing, I was like, ‘Oh my god! One character is named Guy and the other one is Madeline!'”

The 2009 indie film followed a jazz trumpeter named Guy (Jason Palmer) who falls for the shy Madeline (Desiree Garcia) while seeking a more suitable muse, only to find that the two lovers are destined to be together. The gritty film hit the festival circuit, winning an Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Denver Film Fest and ranking fifth in the Village Voice Film Poll for Best First Feature.

Having their amateur debut under their belts, the two next embarked on their passion project, “La La Land,” a lavish and nostalgic musical about a struggling jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) who fall for each other while chasing their dreams in modern-day Los Angeles.

“We couldn’t get the movie made,” Hurwitz said, thinking back on his own struggling artist days. “Nobody wanted to make a jazz musical [with] an unknown director and unknown composer. Even once Damien started to get some traction on it, they’d say, ‘Who’s doing the music?’ and he’d say, ‘My college roommate,’ and then that was even more unattractive a proposition. We couldn’t get it made.”

Instead, they had to prove themselves with “Whiplash,” about a hungry jazz drummer and his strict jazz instructor at an esteemed music conservatory in New York City. In fact, Chazelle shot an 18-minute version starring J.K. Simmons and Johnny Simmons (no relation) to win the Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance before expanding it into a feature film, inserting Miles Teller into the lead role.

“It was just a great small movie for us to get our feet wet in Hollywood,” Hurwitz said. “It wasn’t a studio movie, but it was the first time we started to feel like professionals. I was learning some of the ropes of film scoring because our college didn’t have a film scoring program. I kind of learned on the job. Very steep learning curve on ‘Guy and Madeline’ and a very steep learning curve on ‘Whiplash.’ It was the first time I was learning the workflow and working with a real picture editor, a real music editor, a dubbing stage and all of that. So yeah, ‘Whiplash’ was a huge part of my education I think.”

Hurwitz will never forget the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, as “Whiplash” won the Grand Jury Prize.

“It was a blast,” Hurwitz said. “‘Whiplash’ was the opening night film, which we were a little nervous about. [There’s a] dumb superstition [where] traditionally the opening night film doesn’t do as well. [but] it screened really well! … That movie ends with such a bang and there was a standing ovation. … Immediately that night, Damien was out until 5 a.m. with his agents and distributors bidding on it. He came back to the condo with the news that Sony Classics was buying it, which was so exciting.”

“Whiplash” went on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Film Editing (Tom Cross) and Best Sound Mixing (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley).

“Everyone wanted to know, ‘What’s Damien Chazelle’s next movie?'” Hurwitz said. “I think it was like the day after the premiere, he had a general meeting with two of the heads at Lionsgate — Erik Feig and Patrick Wachsberger I believe are the two men he met with. … There was all this buzz going around Sundance like, ‘Who’s this new filmmaker who made ‘Whiplash’ and what’s he going to do?'”

To their credit, Hurwitz and Chazelle were already working with two young producers, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, on a strategy to turn the “Whiplash” attention into a “La La Land” greenlight.

“We had developed the [‘La La Land’] script, I had written a lot of the music, and Fred and Jordan were keeping it close to their vest until we got to Sundance,” Hurwitz said. “As soon as we got that attention, Fred and Jordan said, ‘Hey, the next project is right here!’ Obviously it went through a lot of development after that, but we had a package ready. … Lionsgate stepped up in a way the others didn’t and trusted the vision. … They were so supportive and let us make our dream project.”

With Lionsgate now on board in Summer 2014, Hurwitz went back to the “La La Land” music that he originally composed back in 2011 and began fine-tuning it for official use in Chazelle’s masterpiece.

“The very first material I composed for the movie is the main theme of the movie,” Hurwitz said. “As soon as Damien started writing the script, he wanted to know what is the main theme, the thing that we now call ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme.’ That was the first thing I composed in the movie.”

After that, Chazelle and Hurwitz brought in rising-star lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a theater duo affectionately known as “Pasek and Paul” after such Broadway hits as “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“Pasek and Paul are just so unbelievably talented,” Hurwitz said. “I gave them the music for what is now called ‘City of Stars’ — it wasn’t called that yet because they hadn’t written the words ‘City of Stars’ yet — but I gave them the piano demo for that song. They came to L.A. to meet us, came to my apartment and we sat around the piano and they sang this lyric that they had been working on. … As soon as they opened their mouths — ‘City of Stars, are you shining just for me?’ — it just felt so right.”

The four of them — Chazelle, Hurwitz, Pasek and Paul — worked together to perfect the music for a full year leading up to the shoot, in which time Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were cast as the leads.

“[Pasek and Paul’] usually write music and lyrics for their own shows, but this was just lyrics,” Hurwitz said. “That was an unusual challenge because they were writing within the constraints of melodies that I already composed. You only have so many syllables, you only have so much space to say what you want to say, and yet they’re saying so much … There were a few songs that went through many drafts of lyrics, and every time they would send back a new draft … it would just sing beautifully.”

It all kicks off with the giant opening number “Another Day of Sun,” shot by Chazelle with the illusion of a six-minute single take (with two illusion masks) along the shutdown EZ Pass ramp connecting L.A.’s 105 and 110 freeways. As the camera swoops over the traffic gridlock and diegetic sound emits from the car radios, a hundred dancers suddenly climb out to snap-dance — Jerome Robbins style.

“That song was such a beast to compose,” Hurwitz said. “I spent so long trying to find it, and then Pasek and Paul went through more drafts of that song than anything else. … By the time I got to the chorus, I was feeling particularly frustrated with it. … I was at [Chazelle’s] place in Venice when I figured out the chorus. We were working independently in the same room, he was writing the script and I was just fiddling around on the piano, and then I came up with the [melody] and he loved it.”

After the eye-popping opening, the second number, “Someone in the Crowd,” boasts another long-take of Stone and her roommates in their starving-artist apartment, where giant images of Ingrid Bergman adorn the walls and mirrors show their audition-ready reflections. After a superimposed barrage of Champagne pours and flashing marquees, we arrive at a swanky pool party, where the camera plunges underwater before emerging to the surface to spin in dizzying bliss with fireworks.

“This project [took] so many years to get made that different pieces happened at different times in different places,” Hurwitz said. “I composed [one part] very early in my old apartment, we had a verse that we liked but ended up throwing it out in 2014. I composed the new verse in my new apartment.”

Next, the charming duet “A Lovely Night” finds Gosling and Stone gazing at a purple sunset horizon from atop the Hollywood Hills, where Gosling does his best Gene Kelly pose on a lamppost before adorably soft-shoeing with Stone, gliding across the pavement and tap dancing atop a park bench.

“‘A Lovely Night’ was kind of the oldest song [other than the main theme],” Hurwitz said. “I composed a bunch of stuff in 2011, then over the years as we dropped the project and did ‘Whiplash’ and then picked the project back up, we rethought a lot of stuff in the movie, [but] ‘A Lovely Night’ was actually one of the original song demos that got locked in. That was composed in 2011 in my old apartment.”

All of this is mere foreplay to the film’s most magical moment as Gosling and Stone recreate a scene from “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) by visiting Griffith Observatory like James Dean and Natalie Wood. Defying gravity as they rise up into the planetarium, our two lovers waltz among the stars before gently returning to Earth for the most magical first kiss in movies, punctuated with an iris.

“The beginning of the planetarium, when they’re waltzing around the pendulum, it’s a more whimsical orchestration, so there are a lot of flute trills, pitch percussion and solo woodwinds in dialogue with each other,” Hurwitz said. “The liftoff moment, I knew it had to be grand and gigantic, so there’s a little upbeat of timpani roll and then all the strings come in with kind of this divisy-divided texture, meaning a lot of them are on the melody but there are also other ones harmonizing in there. Then there’s kind of a bed of woodwinds, but it’s not quite a bed because they’re all kind of counterpoint to each other.”

While Stone and Gosling learned the fancy footwork for these challenging waltzes, Gosling also had to learn to play the piano for such scenes as the “City of Stars” duet with Stone. Bathed in the neon green light of his apartment window, the two flirt and giggle while singing with an everyman charm.

“The ‘City of Stars’ duet they sing at the piano, that was live,” Hurwitz said. “That was Ryan and Emma singing in one room with the camera and me in another room playing an electric keyboard into ear pieces accompanying them. … Watching Ryan learn the piano was incredible. He took piano lessons six days a week with a piano teacher named Liz Kinnon and studied it hours a day. … There were no hand doubles in the movie, there was no CGI cheating; it was all Ryan, and it was shot in long takes, so you can’t even cut up the takes and choose the best pieces. You’re watching what he really did.”

While Gosling shines most when he’s tickling the ivories, Stone gets her big moment when she belts to the rafters during an audition scene to the song fittingly called “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”

“Emma sang ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ live on set,” Hurwitz said. “That was recorded entirely live in front of the camera, so preparing for that and then doing that with her on the day was a huge process and an incredible experience to see her perform it like that, bringing all that emotion to it.”

Lyrically speaking, Hurwitz calls “Audition” his favorite overall song in the entire movie.

“That song is special on many fronts,” Hurwitz said. “I just love how specific the lyric is, yet how broad and anthemic it becomes. It starts so specifically with the aunt … “She lived in her liquor and died with a flicker, I’ll always remember the flame.’ … It’s so poetic and specific. The song then pivots from being about the aunt to being about dreamers in general … any person chasing a dream and fighting the urge to give up on that dream. I love how the song has that specificity and then that broadness.”

The lyrics also hold all of the keys to understanding the film on a thematic level, not to mention its cinesthetic tie-ins. In other words, if you’re struggling to find deeper meanings beyond the song and dance, look no further than the lyrics: “I trace it all back to then, her and the snow and the Seine.”

The line, of course, refers to Mia’s risk-taking aunt, who once jumped into the freezing River Siene in Paris. Seeing as Mia’s aunt is the one who inspired her to be an actress by watching old movies at the library, it’s beautiful foreshadowing that a surreal snow falls as Mia walks outside at a Hollywood party and Chazelle’s camera plunges into the pool. As Stone sings, “The water was freezing, she spent a month sneezing, but said she would do it again.” The message is clear: It’s worth taking the plunge.

This theme ties in perfectly to Mia and Seb’s relationship, relating to any of us who have ever loved and lost. Even though we might get burned by love and be forced to carry the pain of heartache, it’s still worth attempting, as the final shot recalls the lyric: “Smiling through it, she said she’d do it again.”

This final bittersweet smile comes after a dazzling dream ballet (i.e. Vincente Minnelli’s “An American in Paris”) as Hurwitz reprises his various themes from throughout the movie until Mia and Sebastian watch grainy home-movie footage of “what could have been” if their lives went a different direction.

“All of the piano leading up to the last note is mixed in mono,” Hurwitz said. “Then on that last note it opens back up into stereo, which is a really cool effect. When we go from that low-fi mono to the wide stereo on that very last note … it feels like we’re returning to reality. That’s what that cut is when we cut to Ryan at the piano — it’s from Mia and Sebastian as husband and wife kissing, to Sebastian sitting at the piano. That is the cut from fantasy and reality, so that’s when it sonically changes back.”

Like “Cherbourg,” this wraparound ending finds Mia and Sebastian crossing paths once more for one last chilling rendition of “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” that sounds like teardrops falling on piano keys.

“That’s me playing in my apartment on a distant mic,” Hurwitz said. “It was meant to just be a demo [but] Damien got really attached to how it sounded and loved the vulnerability of it. It’s not as pristine a recording as what we did in the studio, but it did emotionally what he’s looking for, so we kept it.”

From these intricate audio cues to symbolic visuals, “La La Land” repays on repeat viewings (I’ve seen it seven times), which is why it will go down as a movie masterpiece worth revisiting year after year.

“I’ve seen the movie so many times at this point, and I’m always seeing new things,” Hurwitz said. “I think it’s a good movie for repeat viewings because it’s so rich. There’s so much on screen in the design of it and the photography of it — and the music is complex. I just hope that people are finding new things and new colors — literally and figuratively — every time they watch it.”

Listen to my full conversation with “La La Land” composer Justin Hurwitz below — with snippets at his piano:

May 23, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Justin Hurwitz (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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