NEW YORK: Composer Justin Hurwitz won two Oscars on Sunday for the music behind “La La Land” after his bid to revive yet modernize musicals triumphed decisively at the box office.
Taking the stage at the Hollywood gala, Hurwitz saluted the musicians and actors in “La La Land” and said he wrote the score with them in mind. Despite the film’s contemporary setting, Hurwitz gave a retro Hollywood sound to “La La Land,” which led the night’s nominations.
“La La Land” took the Oscar for best original score in a field that included music from “Moonlight,” a film that featured a unique blend of hip-hop but which was nowhere near as driven by the music.
Hurwitz also won for best original song with “City of Stars,” a duet between “La La Land” stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, whose swings between major and minor keys mirror the plot tension.
The song first appears in the movie as a solo in which Gosling’s character Sebastian, a struggling jazz artist in Los Angeles, asks over the piano, “City of stars — are you shining just for me?” “City of Stars” has a reprise later — when Sebastian is enjoying success.
This time, Stone’s character Mia, an actress, adds in lines including, “Now our dreams / They’ve finally come true.” The song — featuring lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — was one of two from “La La Land” nominated in the song category along with Stone’s solo “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”
“It’s a dream for a composer to create music that can help resolve a story in as fundamental a way as it does in this movie,” Hurwitz told the online cultural magazine PopMatters. Hurwitz, who was raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee, became friends with “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle when they attended Harvard University.
As students, Chazelle introduced him to a number of musical films, and Hurwitz said he was captivated by how the songs could help develop the characters. “At the end of the day, even if musicals have ‘gone out of style’ for a certain period of time, it comes down to the story.
Like any other movie, if people connect to it, people will want to watch it,” he told PopMatters. “One of my biggest challenges with the music was making sure that I was inspired by older musicals, but at the same time making sure the songs don’t feel like they were actually written in the ’50s or ’60s or ’40s,” he said.
– Exhaustive quest for key melody –
Hurwitz said he worked exhaustively to come up with a melody to carry “La La Land,” recording more than 1,900 demos on the piano. He and Chazelle finally agreed that they had found it — the melody that drives the song “City of Stars” and reappears repeatedly.
“We knew that we were going to use it throughout the movie and it had to carry a really important emotional theme of the movie — which is yearning and being hopeful about the future, but cautious because of past heartbreak,” Hurwitz told the Canadian radio station Jazz.FM91. Hurwitz also tried to use music to pull together the mood of “La La Land.”
Solo pieces by Sebastian, a professed jazz purist, could have been heard in a real jazz club — and Gosling learned to play for the role; the larger score reinforces those songs by subtly bringing in jazz touches. Hurwitz previously worked with Chazelle on the 2014 film “Whiplash,” the story of a jazz drummer and his struggles with a domineering teacher which also was driven by music.
Hurwitz has cited as his influences Michel Legrand, the pianist who brought jazz into cinema when he wrote the scores for the films of New Wave director Jacques Demy -AFP