A chat with ‘La La Land’ composer Justin Hurwitz

The La La Land and Whiplash composer visits Australia



How do you write a modern-day musical about hopes and dreams? They’re themes we’re all-too familiar with; magically brought to life through the story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in La La Land.

The score is the work of Justin Hurwitz – a 32-year-old composer from Los Angeles. Justin met the film’s director Damien Chazelle while they were students at Harvard University, and they formed a groundbreaking partnership that has brought them loads of awards – and us some truly memorable cinematic experiences.

Justin wrote the music to La La Land in 2016, winning Best Original Score and Best Original Song at the 2017 Academy Awards®. He also scored Damien’s three-times Oscar-winner Whiplash, famous for exploring a dangerous relationship between psychopathic music teacher and student.

This year, Justin travels to Australia to conduct the nation’s premiere of his La La Land in Concertwith the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing the music as the film screens in the Sydney Opera House.

Hi Justin! How are you feeling about conducting your La La Land music with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra?

I’m very excited! It’s a world-class orchestra and an iconic venue – I feel very lucky to get to work there.

How has your relationship with this music changed since you received an Academy Award for your score?

I’m not sure the Oscars changed my relationship with the score, but the live concert tour definitely has. I’ve been able to see and feel people’s connection to the music in a very real way. It was a long, sometimes painful process working on this movie, and I was pretty burnt-out at the end. Seeing people’s connection to the music brings me a lot of satisfaction.

What music from films did you grow up with? Why did they resonate with you?

I grew up with The Wizard of Oz, the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musicals The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and John Williams scores like E.T. and Jurassic Park. Whether songs or score, I developed an appreciation for great melodies that you never forget.

You also composed the score to Whiplash. How much of yourself do you see in these movies about music, for which you have written the music?

A lot. The balance between art and love, the sacrifices you have to make to pursue dreams and achieve greatness, is something both movies deal with. Balancing my music with other things in life is something I struggle with.

How are new-generation composers like you changing the way we think about a career in music today?

This has been going on for a while, but film composers today come from all sorts of backgrounds. They can be DJs, music producers, people who play in bands — not just people who have a traditional education in composition. It’s exciting that anybody who writes music can use their talent to write for picture. There’s an appetite for unique voices, and film scores are becoming more diverse because of it.

How important is academic study when it comes to career success?

I had a very traditional, academic music education, but it’s not necessary. I’m very glad I had the education I did, but sometimes my biggest challenge is letting go of the ‘rules’.

What did it actually feel like to win two Academy Awards for your music?

It was an incredible night, and it’s still kind of a blur.

And finally…what’s your favourite scene in La La Land?

It’s hard to pick one scene, but the scene where Mia is in the middle of an emotional audition, and gets interrupted, is a killer.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra will present La La Land in Concert on 7 and 9 December in the Sydney Opera House.

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