The melodies of La La Land
Fred Child interviews Justin Hurwitz, composer for the film score La La Land. He says there are a few key themes you should listen for in the music for insight into the characters' emotional worlds.
FRED CHILD: There's a movie in theaters during this holiday season that's on the top 10 list of quite a few critics around the country. It's called La La Land. A new musical set in Los Angeles inspired in part by some of the great old movie musicals. Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker magazine that the film is a kaleidoscope of color and dance and music and love and that the plot is fairly straightforward. The sun ignites. The song explodes. Boy meets girl while the musical alchemist behind the film is joining me now. Justin Hurwitz wrote the score for La-La Land. Justin welcome.
JUSTIN HURWITZ: Hey thanks for having me.
CHILD: There's tremendous joy and inspiration in the movie but also nostalgia and this kind of lingering threat of loneliness too. How did you try to capture that rich mix of feeling and emotion.
HURWITZ: Well I was taking my cues from the story. You know the story Damien [Chazelle, the writer and director] was telling. I started composing music when he was writing the script. So you know he was telling this story about these young dreamers in Los Angeles who you know the Sebastian characters played by Ryan Gosling wants to you know to be a jazz pianist and to have a jazz club of his own and that the Mia character played by Emma Stone wants to be an actress. And they're both struggling to realize their dreams. So there's this real kind of yearning quality to the music that I think is in. You know in response to what their characters are going through and what really the whole city of Los Angeles has portrayed is going through as it's sort of set up in the opening number which is you know this is a city where people come with these big dreams but it's very hard to realize those dreams.
CHILD: And you captured some of that and Mia and Sebastian's theme. And there's a there's a very few different versions of that there's one version called late for the date. Tell me about that.
HURWITZ: The main theme of the movie it's an instrumental theme it's the main theme of the movie is called we call it. Mia and Sebastian's theme. It's first played on the piano by Ryan's character Sebastian at this at this restaurant where he has a gig a gig he hates where he's just supposed to play you know trite Christmas songs but he kind of wanders off of the music that is supposed to play and plays his soul. I think that's what Sebastian's theme is--he's playing his soul he's playing this this music of the piano that represents his yearning for romance and for a different you know for professional fulfillment and for everything he doesn't have and that is the moment when Mia walks in and hears him playing and falls in love with him. And the theme represents their relationship in their dreams. And it's used throughout the movie and this one you that you mention late for the date happens kind of early in the courtship between me and Sebastian. So Mia has a boyfriend at the at the time she meets Sebastian not a very serious boyfriend but a boyfriend. And she makes a date with Sebastian to go to a movie, to go to Rebel Without a Cause, but she gets stuck at this really annoying dinner with her boyfriend and her boyfriend's brother. And all these annoying people.
And she doesn't have Sebastian's numbers so she can't call him and she starts to wish she weren't at this dinner and wish she were with Sebastian and she starts to hear this theme the theme that Sebastian first played at the piano. The thing that represents their relationship in their dreams. And it's kind of this fantasy in her head.
And for a second she wonders if it's coming from the speaker in the restaurant but it's not it's really fantasy and it's really her heart and her mind being with Sebastian. So she gets up from the table, she says I'm sorry I have to go and as the music swells she runs out of the restaurant and makes it to her date. She's a little late but she makes it there.
CHILD: There a few themes these melodies that come up over and over again in the score and this kind of reminds me of themes in an opera. You keep adapting those tunes in new musical settings depending on how the story unfolds. How did you approach that?
HURWITZ: Well Damien I looked at it as finding themes first finding melodies finding melodies that we knew we would use throughout the movie and that would represent different things and different people and different ideas. So there's this main theme and Sebastian's theme.
There's also a melody that we turned into the City of Stars song. Once we had our lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul you know with Damian to help structure that melody into a song and then asking Paul wrote a beautiful lyric to it and that became city of stars.
But we knew from the beginning that we would use that melody elsewhere in the movie. So I used it in this sort of fantasy sequence at the end of the movie as they're watching home videos of a life that you know I won't give away too much but a life that could have been used elsewhere in the movie. Similarly with other themes in the movie.
You know Damian and I were figuring these melodies out from the very beginning and some that there were some indications in the script of where they would go either as songs or as other pieces of musical material. But it was also a conversation we had in post-production when I got to scoring the picture which is hey where do we put what material. As far as the dramatic underscore and you know which melodies represent what's in the movie and then how do we use those melodies. How do we either use them based on what they represent or how do we turn them on their head? How do we subvert them?
So if it was basically you know at the very beginning of the process I find the themes I find the melodies and then from there on out whether it's building them into songs or whether it's scoring the movie in the end. You know under Damien's direction we figure out where to use where to use what and how to use it dramatically.
CHILD: That theme comes back again later with a scene at the planetarium. Tell me briefly about that.
HURWITZ: The planetarium sequence was something that was in the very first versions of Damien's treatment and then script. It's a big set piece that was always a big part of this movie which is they sneak into the Griffith Observatory planetarium and flowed into the stars basically explore the planetarium and float into the stars. And we knew from the very beginning it was in the treatment and the script that that would be built from the Mia and Sebastian's theme. There were a bunch of moments in the script where it indicated where Damon wanted me to use that main theme of the movie. There was an overture actually initially that was always in the script and that was in the first cut to the movie. It got cut from the movie there's no overture anymore. The movie starts with "Another Day of Sun" but the script said you know we're going to start with a three minute overtur. The script said in this planetarium sequence the theme you know it builds, there's anticipation it builds and builds and you know it is sort of described the shape of the scene and it was clear that I was supposed to use Mia and Sebastian's theme for that sequence and a few other places in the move in the movie were indicated in the script where Damian wanted me to use that theme. And yeah basically my job was to turn that theme into a I don't know how long I was actually for something minutes of instrumental music that carries us through this sequence so you know at the very beginning I composed and orchestrated it before the movie was shot and then I had to reshape it afterwards once there was a cut. You know once Damon and the picture editor Tom changed some things but I did build it build something for it before the movie shot and I was just going off of what was in the script and conversations with Damian of you know a car drives up the driveway of Griffith and there's this anticipation and they tiptoe into the observatory and it's and there's you know just going off of how he was describing the scene. I was I was I was composing and orchestrating this sequence that would sort of have the shape and hit those moments that that Damien said they needed to hit. And then he shot the scene and then I reconfigured some of that to picture. But. Yeah it was a big lush piece of score that I was very excited to create.
CHILD: Congratulations on putting together such an evocative score for this film for the movie La La Land. Justin Hurwitz you so much for joining me.
HURWITZ: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.