Behind 'La La Land,' A Long Relationship Between A Director And A Composer La La Land is the third collaboration between writer and director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz. Their first was actually a senior thesis that was released to critical acclaim.
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Behind 'La La Land,' A Long Relationship Between A Director And A Composer

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Behind 'La La Land,' A Long Relationship Between A Director And A Composer

Behind 'La La Land,' A Long Relationship Between A Director And A Composer

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The movie "La La Land" has already won seven Golden Globe Awards. It's nominated for 14 Oscars, including best original score and two best original songs. The music and the film's story are inseparable. It is a musical after all. But Maureen McCollum of Wisconsin Public Radio reports that the collaboration between the composer of "La La Land" and its director goes all the way back to college.

MAUREEN MCCOLLUM, BYLINE: "La La Land" tells the story of two struggling artists in Los Angeles who can't launch their careers. Composer Justin Hurwitz and director Damian Chazelle already had a successful track record with their previous film, "Whiplash." But Hurwitz says selling a traditional musical in 21st-century Hollywood was not easy.

JUSTIN HURWITZ: Our challenge was to make a movie that wouldn't feel old-fashioned or a soundtrack, songs and score, that wouldn't sound like they actually could have been in any of those older movies but also make it new, make it modern.


MCCOLLUM: Hurwitz does it by mixing American popular song with contemporary pop and big band jazz.


MCCOLLUM: The composer was born in California, but his family moved to Milwaukee, Wisc., when he was in middle school. And he calls himself a Milwaukee native. He began studying piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music right after the move. And his piano teacher, Stefanie Jacobs, says Hurwitz always wanted to dive into big projects.

STEFANIE JACOBS: His senior year in high school, he learned the entire Beethoven first concerto, and he played it with a community orchestra, and he played it really well.

MCCOLLUM: No easy task for an 18-year-old, but Jacobs says Hurwitz was always a strong-willed, independent student who wasn't afraid of failing.

JACOBS: There are several different approaches to being lost, and one would be to just sort of swim with whatever tide is carrying you. And one would be to strike out and look. And I would say that Justin would fall into the latter category.

MCCOLLUM: Hurwitz went on to Harvard University where he met Damien Chazelle. They were in a pop band together. They also collaborated on a senior thesis that became the prototype for "La La Land," the acclaimed black-and-white independent musical "Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench."


DESIREE GARCIA: (As Madeline, singing) Dancing, yes I was dancing with angels who'd come down on a lark. And what's funny I think I felt a spark when I kissed the boy in the park.

MCCOLLUM: Chazelle says the only reason he wrote that movie was because Hurwitz agreed to compose its music.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: If he had said no, our roads would've been very, very different, and there would certainly never have been a "La La Land."

MCCOLLUM: He says he knew that as soon as he heard some of Hurwitz's music he'd stumbled upon a gold mine.

CHAZELLE: The smartest decision I ever made was to latch onto him and not let go.

MCCOLLUM: When Chazelle and Hurwitz finally got the green light to make "La La Land," they wrote and composed hand in hand. The first task Chazelle put to the composer was to come up with a main theme.


HURWITZ: And it took me a really long time, and I just spent so much time at the piano going through demo after demo, idea after idea. As soon as I came up with that melody, you know, it was, OK, wow, that's the theme of the movie.

MCCOLLUM: He and Chazelle also asked their stars to help create the sound of the film by singing some of the songs live on camera while Hurwitz played the keyboard backstage.


EMMA STONE AND RYAN GOSLING: (Singing) I don't care if I know just where I will go 'cause all that I need's this crazy feeling, a rat-tat-tat (ph) on my heart.

HURWITZ: We did that because we wanted those really intimate moments to feel live and to have that live vulnerability and to let Emma and Ryan really act those moments in those songs in a way that probably wouldn't have happened if they had had to pre-record those songs in a music studio months earlier.

MCCOLLUM: The sometimes unorthodox approach that Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle took to collaborating has paid off, but the director says their sentimental music was never a sure bet.

CHAZELLE: The idea of embracing that, not apologizing for it, not trying to coat it in any kind of irony and also embracing the kind of emotions that can come with that that I feel like we downplay in movies these days, you know, just the sort of full-fledged romanticism that maybe movies of an earlier era were able to kind of embrace without hesitation. And now it feels like we're a little scared to embrace those sometimes.

MCCOLLUM: But composer Justin Hurwitz says they knew all along what they wanted to do.

HURWITZ: The music and sort of the musical voice of the movie, I think, was always a big part of the concept. Damien knew that I would be composing, so that helped, at least in his mind, guide what the music was going to be.

MCCOLLUM: Hurwitz says Chazelle has another movie in the pipeline, although it's not a musical. And as soon as it gets a green light, Hurwitz will sit back down at his piano to compose once again. For NPR News, I'm Maureen McCollum in Madison, Wisc.


SIMON: And tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, the man with the longest losing streak in Oscar history - 20 nominations, no wins. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


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