“Hopeful But Melancholy”: ‘La La Land’ Composer Justin Hurwitz On The Film’s Music

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La La Land is bringing back the big studio movie musical, so we interviewed the film’s composer about the songs. Justin Hurwitz has worked with director Damien Chazelle on Whiplash and his first feature film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. La La Land actually began before Whiplash, with Hurwitz writing music in 2011, then picked up in 2014. By the summer of 2014 they hired lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to write the words.

Emma Stone stars as Mia, a hopeful actor who meets Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician struggling to balance his art and making a living as a musician. Having already garnered significant Oscar-buzz on the festival circuit, La La Land opens in New York and L.A. December 9, and everywhere December 16. In anticipation of the film’s breakout songs, we dive into the details of each with Justin Hurwitz himself. 

CT: Let’s start from the beginning. Was “Another Day of Sun” the first song you wrote for La La Land?

JH: No. The first thing I composed was actually the main theme of the movie, the instrumental theme that comes back over and over again in the score, which we call “Mia and Sebastian’s theme.” That was the first thing Damien wanted me tackling because it’s the theme that bonds Mia and Sebastian and represents their love story. It’s so emotionally integral for the movie that Damien wanted to know as early as possible what that would be and what it would feel like. So that was the first thing I tackled and it was a very long process before I found that melody, but finally I got it. And then the first song was another sort of melody that I was composing that Damien called the yearning theme, that became “City of Stars.” We used it for “City of Stars” and shaped it into a song and then Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the lyrics.

CT: Once you had the love theme, did that permeate the other songs? That’s why I thought maybe you started from the beginning, because you hear recurring themes throughout the movie.

JH: That’s actually a really good point. I think the love theme did kind of influence the things I composed after it. It was always the goal for me and Damien that everything in this movie would feel of a piece. All of the songs, score, all of it would feel connected and feel like the same voice, both compositionally and orchestrationally. That’s why it was important for me to orchestrate all of it myself as well because we wanted it all to feel of a piece.

I think the reason Damien wanted me tackling the Mia and Sebastian theme first was because it was a tricky emotional tone to figure out. It had to be hopeful but melancholy, optimistic but a bit sad as well. That was a tone that found its way into all the rest of the songs: “City of Stars,” “Another Day of Sun,” “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” they all kind of exist in a similar emotional universe. They are emotionally complex. They’re not fully happy or fully sad. I think once we figured out the main theme of the movie, that informed what that sound is, what that compositional voice is. That tonality found its way throughout all of the songs and the score.

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CT: After developing the songs, what was it like to hear lyrics put to them?

JH: It was really thrilling to hear lyrics finally over the melodies. Most of the songs, there were moments in Damien’s script where he knew what the songs needed to accomplish narratively or emotionally but the words weren’t there. So to hear Pasek and Paul’s lyrics which struck a wonderful balance between being broad and specific. By broad, I mean speaking to people on a thematic level as opposed to being specific about the characters within the story.

So “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is a perfect example of a lyric that is in some places so specific, talking about Mia’s aunt who lived in her liquor and died with a flicker. I love that line. It’s so poetic and specific, and yet there is this refrain to the song that’s so broad about “here’s to the fools who dream.” I think it speaks to creative people of any kind: dancers, writers, artists. I hope it will speak to people and work outside of the movie. The way they are able to serve the story and the scene so well but also lyrics that I think have a larger thematic import kind of blew me away.

And also just the way that they were able to write lyrics to the melodies I’d written, which is a very unusual task for them. Normally they write the music and the lyrics for their own shows. Here they were asked to write lyrics. It’s a balance doing that because you have certain constraints. You have a certain number of syllables to deal with and yet they’re able to tell so much story and convey so much emotion. It never ceased to amaze me what they were able to do.

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CT: I will go in the order that the songs appear in the movie because that’s how I first heard them. What style would you say “Another Day Of Sun” is? Would you call it big band or swing?

JH: “Another Day of Sun” has some big band elements. It has some jazz elements. One of the biggest inspirations for me when it comes to a song like that is Michel Legrand who composed The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Damien introduced me to those musicals in college and they became two of my favorite movies of all time. I think what I loved so much about his style in those movies was the way he married a jazz rhythm section to a huge orchestration.

I have the rhythm section – meaning the piano, the bass the drums – approaching it like jazz. The bass is walking. The drums are swinging. The piano is comping which means coloring in an improvisational way. And then on top of that, I have a 95-piece orchestra playing an orchestration which is not improvised at all. It’s all on the page and it’s all highly detailed.

The way that Legrand married the jazz to the orchestration and had big band elements but also had the lush strings and winds and counterpoints was really a huge inspiration to me. My challenge on this movie was how do I be inspired by some of my favorite movies and musicals but do my own thing? I took certain approaches like the jazz for the orchestration, but ultimately tried to compose and orchestrate in a way that would sound like this movie and not like those older movies.

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CT: Would “Someone In The Crowd” be Mia’s “I want” song?

JH: Yes. When she slips into the bathroom, I think that’s the closest we have to an “I want” song for her character. It’s an interesting moment because the song up until that point is so energetic. It’s probably the poppiest of our song outside of the literal pop song later in the movie with John Legend. Because the song is carried by her roommates up until that point, it’s a little poppier than anything else in the movie. And then she retreats into the bathroom and sings this very introspective emotional chorus of the song. Yes, she’s telling us what she’s yearning for, that she’s forced to play this game and to go to these parties and be a part of this Hollywood system, but she really wants to be her own artist. You’re right, that is the closest moment we had to an “I want” song for her character.

CT: I will skip a tad ahead since you mentioned the John Legend song. Did you design the sound of his fictional band, The Messengers?

JH: I co-wrote the song with John and a couple of other people and we approached that song as a pop song basically, instead of a musical number. We approached it like musical theater. I wrote the music, we had the lyricists write the lyrics and we were thinking about narratively what the song needed to do and emotionally what the song needed to do. With “Start a Fire,” there weren’t really any narrative or emotional directives for it. We knew what the scene had to do in terms of push Mia away and make us a little uncomfortable about the music Sebastian is playing, but there were no specific narrative things we had to do within the song itself.

So we approached it like a pop song. We tried to make it almost a little generic in the sense that it’s basically “baby, baby, I want to get with you.” That’s sort of what the song is about. We knew it couldn’t be a bad song because we had to understand why Sebastian was in this band playing it, but it also had to feel just like your run-of-the-mill pop song. So it was an interesting task. John was very involved in writing it with us. It was like a pop writing session where we had a bunch of people in the room who were writing it.

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CT: Did you compose all the jazz riffs that Sebastian plays?

JH: I composed all the jazz in the movie, all the jazz that he plays and all the jazz that they go and see when they’re on a date. That’s all original. The only pre-existing jazz that we used was when he’s in his car in the beginning and he’s listening to some Thelonious Monk over and over again, and then practicing it in his apartment. For that we wanted to use actual Thelonious Monk but all the rest of the jazz in the movie is mine. That being said, it was recorded by this unbelievable jazz pianist, Randy Kerber, who did what jazz players do, which is improvise on top of compositions. So I would give him lead sheets, which is what you give to jazz players. It’s the melody and the chord changes and everything. Then he would color it in and improvise on top of it. Then Ryan learned it all.

CT: Are both Whiplash and La La Land your and Damien’s plea for jazz appreciation?

JH: Yes, they are, as well as the first movie Damien and I made together which is called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which was another song and dance musical, a little feature length musical we made in college. Also one of the characters was a jazz musician and there’s a lot of jazz in it. We’ve now made three movies in a row that are jazz oriented.

We love jazz. We wish more people our age were into it. It’s kind of the cliché of “make the kind of movie you want to see.” We want to see more movies about jazz.

Going forward I think we’re not going to make jazz movies for a while. I think we’re looking to do something different going forward but it’s been really fun playing with jazz, working with jazz musicians. That’s such a joy too, recording jazz and getting these unbelievable musicians in the room playing together. We hope that those three movies, in particular, the last two because the last two have actually found an audience, that people will get the soundtracks and listen to it and want to hear more jazz—both classic jazz and new jazz. There’s unbelievable stuff in the past, of course, and there’s also great stuff being made today. It would be great if people listened to more jazz.

La La Land Trailer: Ryan Gosling + Emma Stone

CT: “A Lovely Night” is full of banter. Given the way you composed it, were you composing a musical banter before the lyrics even gave them the dialogue?

JH: Yeah, exactly. I was composing a melody that I thought would feel like what that song needed to be, kind of flirtatious but prickly. Something where they were kind of taking shots at each other, saying how they were not into each other. The lyrics did evolve. The first lyrics were even more prickly than it is now. They were really insulting each other. With Ryan and Emma’s input, the lyricists revised the lyrics and made it a little more romantic, a little less mean-spirited.

I knew when I was composing this song more than any other song in the movie, I was referencing other musicals. I was listening to some Fred and Ginger, some songs like “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” or “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.” Those kind of songs where it’s flirtatious but they’re kind of poking at each other. I was trying to compose a melody that I thought would get across that idea, that would be kind of angular and have this prickly at least until the chorus. Then it opens up more and becomes more romantic.

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CT: In the final medley, do you touch on every style that was previously in the film?

JH: That fantasy sequence at the end was a dream for me to get to compose and orchestrate. Damien basically said, “Let’s end the movie with eight minutes of score that takes us through their whole relationship.” I also re-orchestrated a lot of it so that we wouldn’t be quite re-living anything that we had heard. It is a fantasy sequence. It is story points we haven’t seen so I wanted to find new orchestrations and new twists on the melodies and new approaches. But it does touch on everything in the movie.

That fantasy sequence at the end was a dream for me to get to compose and orchestrate.

I actually composed and orchestrated that largely before the movie was shot just so Damien could think about the sequence, think about what it would be so he could choreograph the shoot. Then after it was shot, Damien and the picture editor cut the sequence and changed a lot of stuff, so I went back and reconfigured a lot of it compositionally and orchestrationally to fit the picture, which is just what film composers do. I basically scored that sequence twice because I scored it before the movie shot. Then they shot to it and then I had to re-score it after there was a picture.

CT: Did you pick the ‘80s songs that would be covered at the pool party?

JH: That was a conversation between me, Damien and the producers trying to think of the silliest, cheesiest songs that he could play and that Mia could taunt him with.

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La La Land opens in select New York and L.A theaters December 9, and everywhere else December 16. 

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