×

“The last thing in the world I wanted to do was write 1920s jazz,” says composer Justin Hurwitz about “Babylon,” his latest collaboration with filmmaker Damien Chazelle (whose “La La Land” won best song and best score Oscars for Hurwitz).

“Babylon” is set in Hollywood near the end of the silent era, and music plays a critical role in the film – not just the bands playing at the wild parties depicted, but also music on silent-movie sets and throughout the colorful three-hour epic as underscore.

“We talked about the world of Babylon,” Hurwitz recalls of his early discussions with Chazelle. “He really was building a world, this wild, unhinged, hedonistic world full of underground music, and I realized that we could do things that would really stretch the boundaries of what we think of as 1920s music.”

The “quaint” sound of traditional jazz of the ’20s wouldn’t have worked for Chazelle’s mad fever-dream of a debauched, anything-goes Hollywood, they reasoned. So Hurwitz took inspiration from rock ‘n’ roll riffs along with modern house, EDM and dance music to match the energy and sense of reckless abandon conveyed by the film.

“For the pieces performed by the jazz bands in the movie, we use more or less the lineup of a jazz band of the time, but the music is a lot more aggressive and in-your-face,” Hurwitz explains. “Wailing trumpets, screaming saxes, things bordering on atonal. Pounding kick drum and dance hi-hats, something we definitely don’t hear in ’20s music.”

Complicating the task was the number of on-screen jazz-band performances that led directly into dramatic scenes, requiring “source music” to transform into “score.” Two trumpets, two saxophones and a rhythm section – a credible 1920s band – “carry us away into a montage to something else. Even if the feeling is a lot more contemporary, it’s scored by the instruments that could be on that bandstand,” says the composer.

Hurwitz worked for three years on “Babylon,” but it was a constant collaboration with Chazelle, who created elaborate storyboards for every scene. So while Chazelle was in pre-production, Hurwitz was already writing and creating demos of music that would be ready by the time shooting began in July 2021.

“I was extending, cutting, structuring the music to the storyboards, but Damien was also structuring the storyboard to the music,” Hurwitz notes. “That’s one of the things I love about working with Damien so much: He respects the integrity of music. So if his picture is a couple of seconds short of what I feel it needs to be, ideally to let a melody resolve, he’ll try to find the shot that allows it to resolve.”

Pre-recording of the on-screen numbers began in April 2021 (delayed by a whole year because of COVID). His 12-piece jazz band featured soloists from across the U.S. and Europe to give “Babylon” a unique sound, from squealing, squawking baritone saxes to emotional trumpet solos. These were then overdubbed with layers of African and Latin percussion.

“There’s over two hours of original music in the movie, and most of it is score,” says Hurwitz. “I had about a year and a half of writing, arranging and orchestrating music, making the charts. I do hundreds of melodies and theme ideas,” he adds, before settling on the best ones.

Four-fifths of that two-plus-hours of music is dramatic score, parts of which were performed by a 98-piece L.A. orchestra. And in a nod to the era’s embrace of what was then called “Orientalism” and the character of Lady Fay (Li Jun Li), he added the two-stringed Chinese erhu and a battery of Asian percussion.

Hurwitz’s theme for Manny (Diego Calva) and Nellie (Margot Robbie) appears in different guises. One is a wistful version that is actually a blend of three pianos: “a very warm, pretty Steinway, blended with a very bright twangy tack piano that’s a little out of tune, blended with an upright piano that’s extremely out of tune,” Hurwitz explains. “I wanted it to feel very fragile and broken.”

But in another version for baritone sax, with off beats and a dance feel, this same tune becomes “the happy, fun dance theme of the movie.” Another main theme, called “Gold Coast Rhythm” on the soundtrack album, is music for Jack (Brad Pitt) as well as a “passage of time theme,” Hurwitz says. Trumpeter Sidney (Jovan Adepo) plays a variation on it as the curtain rings down on this era of early Hollywood.

Hurwitz’s jazz band even sings at various points during the narrative. “We didn’t want professional singers,” he says. ‘We wanted the actual musicians from the band. We wanted the sound of some cool guys who don’t really know how to sing, kind of a Cab Calloway thing.”

“Babylon” is Hurwitz’s fifth film with Chazelle (including “Whiplash” and “First Man”) and in many ways is their most ambitious yet.

“The music that was recorded and survived is just a sliver of the music that was being played at the time,” Hurwitz says. “There was an underground music scene in L.A., and we had fun imagining wild sounds that could have been played though never recorded.”

Watch the featurette below.