'La La Land' Composer Explains Why His Music Isn't Supposed to Sound Nostalgic
Justin Hurwitz grew up on Disney musicals, and intended for the critically-acclaimed film, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to reinvent the movie musical.
Photos by Chuck Grant
Justin Hurwitz sits behind a piano in a house in Hollywood, California, down the road from the Paramount Pictures studio lot, where Cecil B. Demille shot The Ten Commandments and Dr. Phil currently films his daytime talk show. With his Adidas sneakers and jeans, Hurwitz looks like an average dude who would watch X-Men movies, but then he frowns and stares at the keys. His fingers start flying across the piano, forcing out of the instrument the jazzy melody that runs throughout La La Land, the polarizing movie musical poised to win Best Picture at the Oscars in February.
His score has turned La La Land into the Stranger Things for musical fans and cinema freaks. As the Netflix sci-fi series' theme triggered viewers' memories of 1980's kids movies like E.T. and Stand by Me, La La Land's music has sent audiences into a technicolor spiral of nostalgia for 1950's movie musicals—Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris—and the 20th century dream of moving to Los Angeles and becoming a star. Although the film has been predicted to win Best Picture since its debut at the Venice film festival, its romanticism has alienated some critics who find the musical vapid in the era of Trump, a time of serious political danger. Hurwitz, though, wrote the score to tell a story, and explore themes about art and ambition, instead of conjuring images of movies long past. "It can make you nostalgic for a time when those musicals were commonplace, but it hopefully doesn't feel like an old fashion movie," he says. "It was never intentioned to feel or sound old-fashioned."
La La Land tells the story of two artists: Mia (an actress) and Sebastian (a jazz pianist). Emma Stone is the female star, Ryan Gosling is the male lead. Both characters are struggling to make their dreams come true in contemporary Los Angeles, and over the course of the film, they fall in and out of love with each other and their respective arts. Throughout the movie, Sebastian struggles to freshen up jazz, while Mia fights to land a role—or even an audition for a role—better than a one-episode part on a bad network crime show. Although Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle took inspiration from the scores of musicals directed by Jacques Demy (best known for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) or produced by Arthur Freed, the mogul who oversaw The Wizard of Oz and dozens of other MGM musical classics from 1939 to 1962, they aimed to use the music and plot in a way unseen in films like Freed's girl-meets-boy musicals, like Meet Me in Saint Louis.
"The movie gets at some interesting ideas about art and the idea of art being rooted in the past but needing to move forward," Hurwitz says. "That's an idea that I haven't seen in any of the older musicals we love."
Hurwitz listened to few musicals when he was young. He studied classical music as a child in 1990s Wisconsin, while his sister played the violin. (Both their parents worked in the arts: Hurwitz's mother danced professionally as a ballerina, while his father wrote for a living.) The 1990s being the 1990s, Hurwitz did come across three musicals: The Wizard of Oz and the two Disney movies featuring music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman: The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. He loved the movies, watching them over and over again. "I was the right age for them," Hurwitz explains. "They were incredible movies and incredibly powerful filmmaking and gorgeous music." They influenced him through sonic osmosis. The second part of La La Land's score, the jazz sound, came to him as a teenager, when his uncle Ron gave him an Oscar Peterson jazz album.
"That opened up a whole new world," Hurwitz says. "I grew up playing classical piano where you're trying to get the notes right." With jazz, Hurwitz could create a new piece of music every time, and he found the genre exciting.
At Harvard College in the early 2000's, he met a fellow jazz nerd, La La Land director Damien Chazelle, who introduced him to Demy's French musicals from the 1960s. Around late 2008, the duo created a musical film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Film executive Matthew Plouffe saw the short and encouraged Chazelle to create another musical, long before America's listicle-induced nostalgia mania kicked in. "Damien started thinking about a new musical," Hurwitz explains. "He asked me if I wanted to do another musical and he started writing the treatment, and I started writing the music." At the start, the collaborators established La La Land as very plot-focused.
"The first things I remember were the big set pieces of the movie," Hurwitz recalls. "It's gonna start with a big huge musical number on a freeway in a traffic jam. It's gonna have this big balletic sequence in the Griffith Observatory Planetarium, and they're gonna float into the sky. There's gonna be this big fantasy in the end, where we kind of rewind the story, and we relive moments of the relationship set to music. I remember those big moments being pillars of the story."
The scenes sound more like nostalgic images more than plot points. Beauty and the Beast reaches its musical climax when Belle and the Beast dance in a ballroom overlooking a starry sky. Both Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris conclude with minutes-long ballets through multiple set pieces. But, like in the Ashman/Menken Disney films, La La Land uses musical motifs to show important scenes in characters' plots. The Griffith Observatory Planetarium marks when Mia and Sebastian show to each other that they're in love; the final ballet takes the audience through the turmoil in Mia's mind over how achieving her career dream has affected her personal life.
At the same time, the long dance number is romantic. Emma Stone dances past flat sets reminiscent of a time when studios used backdrops instead of CGI. Everything sounds romantic as well, like the kind of tune a little girl would imagine dancing to when she lives in Oklahoma and dreams of growing up to be a starlet. Hurwitz presents an idea of dreaming about Los Angeles and what it offers, not the city itself. While writing the music, he spent more time looking at the city's architecture than listening to its sounds.
"It's a very eclectic city—there are so many looks to it," he explains. "Some of the things that used to be really annoying, like driving, I found sort of the upsides [to while writing the score], like being alone in a car, being in this bubble, being able to listen to the radio for an hour at a time."
Chazelle and Hurwitz, though, struggled to get financing for La La Land in, well, the literal La La Land. Chazelle had yet to make a film, and studios doubted the commercial potential of a musical created by a first-time feature film director and unconnected to a hit Broadway show. He decided to first direct a low-budget drama about jazz, Whiplash, also with a Hurwitz score. The movie won at Sundance in 2014 and received a Best Picture nomination the following year. With success under their belt, Chazelle and Hurwitz received funding for their dream musical from Lionsgate. The studio gave them a list of go-to lyricists and songwriters, and after several meetings, the pair hired Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. "They came to my apartment. We sat around the piano, and they sang," Hurwitz recalls. "They sang this lyric they'd been working on now, 'City of stars, are you shining just for me?' It was exactly what Damien and I envisioned the song being."
The entertainment industry has eaten up La La Land, awarding it nominations at the SAG Awards, the Venice Film Festival, and a slew of other award shows. It might seem the movie has garnered so much acclaim because it's a love letter to Hollywood, but Hurwitz believes the film has captured audiences because of its deeper meanings.
"A misunderstanding would be that it's just about Hollywood, or that it's just about the film industry," Hurwitz says. "To get at your other question, a misunderstanding could be that it's about an actor and a jazz pianist when I think it's about something larger. It's about dreaming and wanting to make things and having this yearning to be creative and to be an artist."
Correction:A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Hurwitz played the same notes every time when playing jazz music. This piece has been updated to clarify that he repeatedly played the same notes when performing classical music.