10 behind-the-scenes facts about La La Land’s award-winning music

This past Sunday, Damien Chazelle’s film La La Land broke records at the 74th Golden Globe awards, taking home every award for which it was nominated—seven in total. While watching a love story between a struggling jazz purist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) unfold, the film’s viewers enjoy a playful explosion of color, iconic Los Angeles landmarks and some fabulous music composed by Justin Hurwitz (with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Hurwitz’s whimsical work earned Golden Globe Awards for both “Best Original Score” and “Best Original Song.”

Some of us are already familiar with the movie’s musical backdrop. For those who aren’t—or those who simply want to enjoy the songs again—listen to our accompanying Spotify playlist. Meanwhile, check out these 10 fun facts about the music behind the movie that “makes musicals matter again,” according to the New York Times.

  1. Gosling began learning jazz piano by rote for the very first time, just three months prior to filming, with Los Angeles-based piano teacher Liz Kinnon.
  2. After extensive training, a piano double was not needed for Gosling’s piano performances, all of which were done by the acclaimed actor himself. Singer-songwriter John Legend (who also appears in the film) referenced Gosling’s newfound skill, exclaiming: “I was jealous, man. Watching him play, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is really good and he just learned this in the last few months.’ It’s pretty amazing.”
  3. According to director Chazelle, the film was inspired by “musicals of old, and talents ranging from Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly to director Jacques Demy, who made 1964’s remarkable The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
  4. La La Land was actually the second Chazelle film Hurwitz scored. He also created the driving jazz grooves heard in Chazelle’s Academy Award-winning 2014 film, Whiplash.
  5. Chazelle and Hurwitz have been friends and creative collaborators since they met in a college rock band, while attending Harvard University.
  6. Emma Stone’s “Audition” song was performed live on set, in a single take. In a recent interview, Hurwitz—who accompanied her—explained, “Because I was letting Emma lead the song, I was reacting to her. So a lot of times the piano is a little bit behind the vocal. It sounded like a recital or something where you know the singer is leading it and the piano is there to accompany.”
  7. Instead of writing music that sounded nostalgic, Hurwitz instead aimed to create a sound that would help to “reinvent the movie musical.” 
  8. The energetic opening ensemble, “Another Day in the Sun,” features layers upon layers of independent voices and a 95-piece orchestra. Hurwitz explained the challenge of composing music for a strong visual impact without overwhelming the viewer. “With an arrangement and an orchestration that big, you kind of have to carve out lots of moments in it to feature and to think about how it’s working visually and make sure it’s all working together.”
  9. Hurwitz describes “A Lovely Night” as an intentionally angular piece, jumping back and forth between styles that Hurwitz describes as “prickly” and “lyrical.” He explains, “When you’re falling in love, crazy chemical things are happening, and the music is trying to reflect how they’re emotionally feeding off of each other.”
  10. “City of Stars,” the bittersweet piano-driven track featured in the film’s official trailer, was the piece that secured the participation of lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Several hopeful lyricists created demos with potential lyrics. Hurwitz said that hearing Pasek and Paul perform theirs “was a revelation.” Until then, they hadn’t been able to pinpoint what the song should be about. Very little changed between the initial demo and the piece’s final Golden Globe Award-winning rendition.

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