‘La La Land’ Composer Justin Hurwitz Details the Film’s Songwriting Process (EXCLUSIVE)

'La La Land' Composer Reveals Songwriting
Courtesy of Tonya Wise, AdMedia/Lionsgate

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” has landed on the Lido as the 73rd Venice Film Festival is officially underway. The film has dazzled critics and made an undeniable splash as an awards season prospect, creatively dabbling in the musical genre to tell a story of dreamers dreaming and the electricity that comes from chasing what makes you happy.

The DNA of those thematic strokes can be found in the original songs crafted for the film, six in all, which carry the viewer through the journey of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone). The film’s composer, Justin Hurwitz, spoke exclusively to Variety about the process as he and Chazelle sought to turn something traditional and classic on its ear.

Light spoilers follow…

(Note: All songs feature music by Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, save for “Start a Fire,” which was written by Hurwitz, John Legend, Angélique Cinélu and Marius de Vries.)

***

“ANOTHER DAY OF SUN”
The film puts the audience on notice with a big, roaring ensemble number belted by motorists on the clogged 110 freeway in Los Angeles. Captured in a single 6-minute take, the scene is boisterous and exciting, and ostensibly optimistic, but it betrays the struggle that is living in this sprawling metropolis, something the film dives into further as it goes.

Hurwitz: “We just wanted to have a big production number that really pulled you into the world and announced from the beginning, ‘This movie is a musical. People are going to sing. People are going to dance. It’s going to be a lot of fun.’ One of our favorite movies is ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort.’ After ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,’ it was the next Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand musical, and that movie opens with — in that case it’s just dance. There’s no singing but it’s this big world-establishing number with great dancing and big orchestration. That’s always been one of the favorite scores for me and Damien in the way that Legrand was able to marry a jazz rhythm section, and in some cases a jazz big band, with a full blown romantic orchestra and do it in such a danceable way. At the same time, our opening song is a song, which is a very different animal than what that cue is or what other models may have been. So the real challenge was getting this piece to work narratively. I composed music that was trying to say something and have a certain feeling to it, but a lot of the heavy lifting came from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the lyricists, being able to sort of catalogue the characters’ stories and bring it in quickly and get us oriented. It’s a complicated song because ostensibly, it’s so happy, it’s another day of sun, L.A. is amazing, but you hear about all of these struggles and you realize what a dark and difficult place Los Angeles can be. So I was trying to get that across in the music. It’s a very fast song and as a whole it’s in a major key, but it dips into minor quite a bit and it’s more bittersweet than it may seem on its face. And then I spent a lot of time arranging all the very, very dense background vocals. There are lots of layers and counterpoint, a lot of different, independent voices. And then our full-size, 95-piece orchestra on top of it. So there’s a lot going on there and just finding pockets to feature different things, I think that’s the biggest challenge with a number like that. You don’t want it to just turn into a wall where there’s too much coming at you. You want to obviously feature the featured singers as they come by or walk towards camera, but as the camera moves past, certain elements of the number — you want to hear a trumpet scream or you want to hear a big band brass section scream or you want to hear background vocals swell up or you want to hear a wind run or something that kind of ties to a camera move. With an arrangement and an orchestration that big, you kind of have to carve out lots of moments in it to feature and to think about how it’s working visually and make sure it’s all working together.”

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“SOMEONE IN THE CROWD”
Serving as an introduction for Mia and her world, this is at first blush an upbeat track with the struggling actress’s roommates trying to convince her to come out to a Hollywood party. It eventually turns melancholy as Mia becomes introspective, wondering if she’ll be just another faceless dreamer in the crowd, but what makes the song really effective is the choreography in the girls’ apartment.

Hurwitz: “‘Someone in the Crowd’ is a big, fun production number. It’s like ‘Another Day of Sun’ in that there’s a lot going on. It’s a big orchestration. There’s a dense vocal arrangement, because all of Mia’s roommates. As I was making that vocal arrangement, I was talking to Damien about the blocking of the scene and trying to find moments between the three girls and how those lines are divided up. I say three girls because Mia is mostly a spectator of the song until she gets her own verse later on. I was thinking about where they were geographically, both in a blocking sense and a musical sense, and how you find those little pockets where their harmonies or countermelodies can come to the surface. And the orchestration, it’s just fun and jazzy. The song has a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone to it because they’re singing about the games you have to play in Hollywood. I don’t think those girls totally believe what they’re singing but they’re also game for the process of the whole Hollywood world. The song was trying to straddle this somewhat cheeky but also nostalgic tone at the same time. It’s jazzy and it’s fully orchestral and it’s romantic, and then certainly in the second act of the song when we catch up with Mia, that’s where it becomes a more emotionally honest song. It goes from being kind of silly, like, “Let’s just put on sexy dresses and go to a party,” to a more emotional thing of Mia in the bathroom thinking about her dreams and the realities of the industry. And that’s where the arrangement collapses into just piano with some very, very light strings. The melody — which, when used as the chorus of the song, is up-tempo, exciting — becomes very sad when played slow and kind of rubato and free time. We wanted to have a song that can go from so happy, silly, excited, to so introspective and then back at the end of the song to a full-blown production number again.

“A LOVELY NIGHT”
This jazzy, flirtatious song is important because it’s the first time Sebastian and Mia interact musically. With odes to “Singin’ in the Rain” and tons of Kelly/Reynolds charm, the two try to deny the fact that they’re obviously falling for one another as the orchestra becomes increasingly playful, transforming the song into a dance number. And yes, Sebastian even swings from a lamppost.

Hurwitz: “‘A Lovely Night’ is kind of in the tradition of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers song in that it’s a flirtatious, fun song with some nostalgic tones in it. As I was composing it I was trying to think about what it was about. It’s about them sort of telling each other that it’s never going to happen. They’re never going to date. They’re not meant for each other. But at the same time, you see they are very much interested in each other. They’re on the way to falling in love. Melodically I was thinking about a prickly melody to match what would be a prickly lyric. So the verse is very angular. There are some very difficult intervals in it and I had to work with Ryan and Emma on it. It’s definitely not an easy melody in the verse. But then it opens up into a more lyrical, sweeter melody in the chorus, so it kind of jumps back-and-forth between prickly and lyrical. And in the orchestration, it gets increasingly playful as it goes along and I wanted to give Mandy Moore, the choreographer, something kind of fun to work with, a lot of different inflections and hits and rhythms and triplets and whatnot, and a lot of different groupings of instruments jumping to the forefront — just a lot to play with. The song turns into a dance number and has its dance break section, where the drums kind of drop out for a bit and it’s a bunch of hits and rhythms as they’re sitting on the bench and jumping on the bench. That was a really fun spot to orchestrate. And then they kind of jump off the bench and they get into a full dance number. Then it just picks up pace and it gets faster and faster as it goes along, and the orchestration gets denser and a denser and the drums are playing sort of a Latin beat and it gets more and more frenzied until it like peaks and hits its head towards the end of the song. And then they kind of come down to earth. A lot of the music up to this point has been kind of reserved and more introspective and this song is just more manic. When you’re falling in love, crazy chemical things are happening, and the music is trying to reflect how they’re emotionally feeding off of each other.”

“CITY OF STARS”
This crooning ditty, driven by piano, is a melancholy tune that comes at a moment when Sebastian, walking out onto a pier cast in the trademark beauty of a Los Angeles sunset, should be happy about setting a date with Mia. But he can’t help thinking about other dreams that haven’t worked out in his life. It’s later reprised as a duet between Sebastian and Mia carrying the drama into the film’s second act.

Hurwitz: “‘City of Stars’ started at the piano with me just working on demos for Damien, sending him ideas until something really sparked. It’s so funny that that and ‘Audition’ are the two songs that people seem to be responding to the most, at least so far, because they had similar processes in the sense that they had probably the least amount of fussing at the piano demo stage. We went through a lot of ideas, but I can’t really think of any music I was listening to at the time that I was thinking of when I was writing it. I was just composing it from an emotional place and thinking about the tone. I would say the tone is hopeful, but melancholy at the same time. And it kind of goes back-and-forth between cadencing in major and cadencing in minor, because I think that’s kind of what the song is about. You have these great moments and then you have these less great moments in life and in Los Angeles and we see it happen in the story. I was thinking about that idea a little bit and just trying to compose a melody that I thought was shapely and beautiful. I guess it has some jazz inflections, because it’s something Sebastian plays on the piano. And then after it was composed, we handed it off to Pasek and Paul, and that was actually the first lyric they wrote. It was two summers ago. We were meeting with a bunch of lyricists and lyricist teams to find somebody or a team who really got what we were going for. A couple of different people demoed a lyric for us or wrote a spec lyric as part of the audition process, and this was the song we were using, because it was one of the first songs that was composed. Pasek and Paul came back with a lyric and they came to my apartment — it was me, Damien, Benj and Justin — and they just performed this lyric for us. It was a revelation because we’d been thinking to ourselves, ‘What is this song about?’ We’re not lyricists, Damien and I. We didn’t know. A couple of other lyricists had taken a shot at it, but the song you hear in the movie is, except for maybe a couple of the word changes, exactly what Pasek and Paul came back with. It’s interesting that some of the best things in the movie, some of the most special songs, I think, happened the most effortlessly. I haven’t talked to them much about their process with that lyric but it seems like they were just inspired in a way that I was inspired when I was writing with the music.”

“START A FIRE”
This one is unique in the fray, and sort of tricky, because while it’s a great, soaring pop track, it also represents Sebastian’s abandonment of his ideals as a musician. Like any artist, he reaches a point where pragmatism and making a living is of the utmost importance, so he joins a popular band headed by pop star Keith (John Legend). He enjoys the popularity this music brings him, but he knows passion has left the equation.

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Hurwitz: “We co-wrote that song with a couple other people. It was unusual and a change of pace, because we approached it as a pop song, meaning we wrote it in a pop writing session, which is just a different process. With all the other songs, we approached them the way musicals are written, which is I composed the music, handed it off, Pasek and Paul wrote a lyric and it was more of that traditional music theater approach. Whereas ‘Start a Fire,’ we just got in a room and kicked stuff around and sang licks. I was at the piano, John used the piano a little bit and he was singing, obviously, and a couple other people there throwing in ideas and lyrics. We just sat in the room until the song was written. It was fun. We felt like we needed to approach the song differently because this was just a different kind of song. And John was really fun to work with. He had great melody ideas. He sang a lick and then we started building on it. And then I had the pre-chorus idea and then we started building on that. And then Angélique, who writes with John, was there and she had a lot of lyric ideas and we were just working through it. I was impressed by how collaborative John was and how he was there to listen to whatever the best idea was in the room. When you’re a pop star and you have hits, it’s impressive when you’re a humble guy and that collaborative. I think the thing that blew me away the most was hearing his voice in a small room, like six feet away. Everybody knows John Legend has a world-class voice, but when you’re a few feet away and he’s just belting out a chorus, it’s so powerful. It’s a really cool experience to see something that special and unique that close. It was just a few hours. We all locked ourselves in a room and sort of collaboratively banged it out. And then that was the song and it never changed after that. We just basically recorded it.”

“AUDITION (THE FOOLS WHO DREAM)”
The final full number of the film comes at a crucial time for Mia, finding herself at yet another audition, yearning to live her dream. It’s a crucial storytelling moment that begins intimately and then turns into a sweeping, romantically orchestrated ballad as Mia sings about the aunt who inspired her to be a dreamer.

Hurwitz: “That’s probably my favorite song in the movie. Compositionally, I’m more proud of that than any other song. Lyrically, it speaks to me quite a bit as a creative person in L.A. I think Benj and Justin did a beautiful job on that lyric. And it came from a very pure place. With a lot of the other songs there was a lot of conversation leading up to them. There was a lot of back-and-forth with demos, loosely listening to references to get inspired. For ‘A Lovely Night,’ for example, we listened to Fred and Ginger songs or other references for different songs just to get inspired. For ‘Audition,’ I wasn’t really listening to anything. I wasn’t really trying to sound like anything. I was just composing at the piano, and for that reason, I think the song comes from a very pure place and I felt like I was really composing from a place of emotion. It was a great experience to just sit at the piano and think about what the song is saying, what the song will eventually say when it has the lyrics, what the song is going to be about and what it is going to feel like. It came out very quickly and there wasn’t a lot of back and forth. Damien had some structural notes. We tweaked a couple of things before handing the music off to Benj and Justin. But it just came out in a really pure way and has been my favorite song to this day. And then just working with Emma on it — she does such an amazing job, and what you’re hearing in the movie is all live singing. We worked with her a little bit leading up to that in rehearsals, but then on set, I was playing piano on an electric keyboard into her ear. She had a little earwig and I was in a different room, because we wanted her to be able to lead the song. We didn’t want any sort of pre-record that was done a week earlier when she was feeling a different thing or hearing the song a different way. We didn’t want her to be boxed in with tempos or pacing or phrasing or anything. So we practiced it, we got it, she was nailing the song in rehearsal, but at the same time she was also saving a little bit for the day. I think she was working on it technically. She was getting all the notes. She was nailing the belted notes in rehearsals but she was kind of waiting for the day to really go to the place she goes in the movie and to perform it as emotionally as she did. So she was in one room and I was in another room and she led the song and I just accompanied her and every take it was sort of an experience we hadn’t had before, because we haven’t really played the song that way and really gone for it the way we did on the day we shot it. Everybody on set was emotional watching that and it was really special.”

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  1. Mr. Hurwitz congratulation once more..!! As a musician you know very well that notes is like language that speak inside us..so in my case, you touched me emotional especially with “City of Stars”, cause i am an actor too lol…It was just a brilliant idea and as you said.. “the tone is hopeful, but melancholy at the same time.” !!! BRAVO

  2. smoky tiger says:

    Why did they have a depressing ending?

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