Using his noodles: La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz talks inspiration, moving away from jazz and more

The 'La La Land' score comes alive at Mahaffey Theater on November 12.

click to enlarge Justin Hurwitz on the set of "La La Land." - BY ACTIVITÉS CULTURELLES UDEM [CC0], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
By Activités culturelles UdeM [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Justin Hurwitz on the set of "La La Land."


The act of writing — whether inscribing notes onto music paper or hammering words into a keyboard — is often portrayed in movies and TV shows as a relatively brisk exercise. The writer struggles, the composer broods, crumpled drafts get tossed into the trash, but soon enough, voila! The concerto is finished! The novel is done!

To a degree, that romanticized portrayal of the creative process also informs La La Land, the much-adored 2016 musical starring Ryan Gosling as a jazz composer. But the man who actually composed the movie’s melodies, Justin Hurwitz, will tell you that the process was neither easy nor quick, and definitely not romantic — more like “months of me just bashing my head against the piano,” he says, describing the process that yielded the movie’s indelible ditty “City of Stars.”

The results of all that head-bashing, however, were glorious. The song won an Oscar, as did Hurwitz’s score (on top of Oscars for actress Emma Stone, director Damien Chazelle, cinematography and production design), and the music was so lush, varied and well-integrated into the story that it helped make La La Land a landmark in movie musicals, opening up new possibilities for the art form.

Fans of the movie (and newbies, too) can now get the chance to immerse themselves even deeper into Hurwitz’s score. On Sunday, La La Land in Concert comes to the Mahaffey, a screening accompanied by live orchestra, so that every note, from the headlong urgency of the L.A. traffic-jam opener to the heady swirl of Gosling’s piano improvs, is heard loud and clear.

Hurwitz, 32, has conducted the orchestra in past incarnations of this event. He can’t be on hand for the St. Pete gig, but he did take a moment to talk by phone a few weeks ago about composing, collaborating with Chazelle, whom he’s known since they met as undergrads at Harvard, and the elusive art of the earworm.

Read our Q&A and listen to the soundtrack below. Get more information on the show via local.cltampa.com.


La La Land in concert
Sun. Nov. 12, 8 p.m.
Mahaffey Theater, 400 1st Street S., St. Petersburg.$45-$125.


As soon as I realized I was going to be talking to you, I started singing “City of Stars” to myself. When you’re creating a song, do you have in your mind,”‘I wanna make a tune that will stick in someone’s head”?

Yeah, that’s always an important priority for me and Damien. That’s one of the things we’re looking for as we’re going through idea after idea, piano demo after piano demo. Obviously the most important thing is that it it works for what the scene is, for what it emotionally has to be, but we keep throwing them out until we have one that we believe that people are going to hum.

How do you judge that?

It’s kind of just an instinct. And I rely on Damien a lot for that. I just come up with melody after melody, and he’s the one that often says, ‘That one’s nice, but I don’t think it’s quite catchy enough.” We talk about, “Is the melody shapely enough?” A word Damien uses a lot as we’re throwing melodies out is that it’s too “noodly,” meaning it kind of just noodles around and doesn’t have a striking shape to it.

Can you remember the moment when you came up with the melody for “City of Stars”?

I was visiting my parents in Wisconsin in the summer and spending most of my day at the piano. I was on a very high number in terms of how many attempts I made at the melody. And the attempt right before I cracked it, I had the left hand [he hums a few bars] but the melody was completely wrong. So the next one, I  kept playing the same left hand and this time the right hand — the melody — fell into place.

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It’s like a movie scene, somebody noodling at the piano and suddenly the melody comes to them.

I wish it was that romantic. It was months of me just bashing my head against the piano, being very very depressed. That’s always the process, not just for songs. It’s the same with scores. This past spring I went through the same process — sitting at the piano for about two months before I had the melody [for First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong, first astronaut to land on the moon, directed by Chazelle and starring Gosling].

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the lyrics for La La Land. When you give lyricists a melody, do you say, “This is where it’s going to be taking place in the movie,” or “Think what words come to you about Hollywood when you listen to the melody?”

They had read the script — and Damien wrote into the script little treatments for each song. At the time we gave them the piano demo and they wrote the lyric, “City” was going to be Mia’s song in the beginning of the movie, at the same place [in the final version] where Sebastian sings it on the pier. There’s a good description with a lot of context in the script. Mia [Emma Stone] and Sebastian [Gosling] have just met, they’ve hit it off. So Mia’s walking down the street, singing hopefully about this new love but also with caution because of all of these heartbreaks in the past. So tonally, emotionally, it was the idea of hopeful but cautious, realistic. Those ideas were there, and the scene was written, and then Pasek and Paul, their brilliance was to pull in some of the poetry when it comes to Hollywood and the double meaning of stars. All of that was them.

And you got similar treatments from Damien as far as the musical interludes?

Yeah, same deal. I was reading the script and we were talking about those spots in the movie — there’ll be a song here, there’ll be a gravity-free dance in the planetarium here...

So now we’re going to see it with a live orchestra. Have you experienced this version of the screening before?

I haven’t experienced it exactly because the concerts I’ve been at I was conducting, so I was not really watching, I was nervously trying to get through it and not screw it up. Audiences seem to really love it. it’s a new way to see the movie, but you can also focus on the orchestra and appreciate the level of musicianship and the amount of really skillful playing that’s required in some of this music, in some of the jazz, and some of the really passionate emotional playing that’s required.

It’s very lush. Even when you were writing the score for Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench [the first film he and Chazelle made together when they were still at Harvard], you had that instinct for creating a lush soundtrack. Was that something you took from favorite movie musicals of the past?

Guy and Madeline and La La Land were hugely inspired by French New Wave movies that Damien and I were watching, particularly Umbrellas of Cherbourg and other New Wave scores, like  Breathless and The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim -- just great scores that had really colorful, eccentric but also lush emotional orchestration.

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How did you and Damien find each other at Harvard?

We met like first week of freshman year. I was studying music theory and counterpoint — a lot of Bach, completely academic — and Damien was studying film. I was looking to start a band, going around asking, “Do you play anything?” I heard there’s this incredible jazz drummer named Damien Chazelle, and we started a band. Then sophomore year we quit the band and just started focusing on movies. He’d wanted to be a film director since he was a little kid. That was when we started talking about Guy & Madeline. We became roommates sophomore year so we were living together and starting to work together so it became a full-time thing.

I have to ask about that moment at the Oscars [the infamous snafu in which La La was announced as Best Picture before it became clear Moonlight was the actual winner]. That had to be a rollercoaster. You’d won Oscars for song and score and then...

It was a bit of a blur -- I’ve seen it all on TV  since then. Obviously that was pretty confusing,  what happened with best picture, but Moonlight is a phenomenal movie. And a lot of people on La La Land won - so it was a great night.

And now you’re writing the score for a movie about the moon landing. What are your challenges with this?

It’s not going to be traditional orchestral sounds. I’m learning a lot of new stuff, spending  all these months to learn some electronic stuff, getting deep into production and sound design. We’re both excited to get away from jazz and music movies for a while and do something completely different. [He also wrote the score for Chazelle’s Oscar-winning 2014 film Whiplash, about the turbulent relationship between a young jazz drummer and his abusive teacher.]

There was a lot riding on you with La La Land. Some critics were making you out to be the saviors of movie musicals, and others were saying that the story of the movie was “white people saved jazz.”

Oh,I don’t know,  there were a lot of narratives going around.  I have no idea what they were.

One last question: When you’re writing for non-singers, do you have to create the melody around the performer’s voice to some extent?

Not really. The melodies in La La Land were all written before we had our cast, before Ryan and Emma. You do sit down with them and figure. But generally the melodies were pretty much completely locked.

And so no songs in “First Man”?

No no no, that’s what I mean. I’m saying I’m excited to get away from jazz -- and I’m excited to get away from musicals, just do like a serious dramatic underscore, because for the most part I think that’s what my career is going to be as a film composer.

I look forward to hearing future underscores. Congratulations!

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