Oscar Songs: How ‘La La Land’ Songwriters Wrote a Love Letter to Movie Musicals (Video)

TheWrap magazine: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul explain how they shunned cynicism and irony for Damien Chazelle’s movie

A version of this story about “La La Land” composers first appeared in the Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

The most acclaimed movie musical since “Chicago,” Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” features seven new songs, three of which are being pushed for the Oscars: John Legend’s “Start a Fire” and two from the team of composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”

What was the process of developing these songs like?
BENJ PASEK We were really lucky that Justin and Damien had already done a lengthy process of developing the melody for these songs. They did tons of drafts to get the songs in a great place melodically, and Damien also had every shot of the movie, especially the song moments, in his head. So we were guided by the emotional content of the songs, paired with where we knew the story was going.

JUSTIN PAUL It would be a back-and-forth. Benj and I would be in New York, Justin and Damien would be in L.A., and we’d toss things back and forth by email. And then we’d have little mini-camp sessions where we’d get together for four or five days and wrestle them into shape. Damien would throw out ideas, Justin would throw out ideas, and it would be like, “We like those four lines, but this one isn’t working. What can we do with it?”

la la land Ryan Gosling

PASEK And it’s funny, because Damien is very black and white. If he hates something, he says, “I hate it.”

JUSTIN HURWITZ “That’s terrible.”

PASEK And if he loves something, “I love it.” The three of us were always striving for the “I love it,” and it could take a long time to get there.

HURWITZ Before these guys even got to the lyrics, I was working on piano demos for Damien. And I did a little over 1,900 demos. Most of my Gmail is emails from Damien saying, “No, no, no, no, terrible, no, no, no, maybe, no no no,” but then finally I come to the one that he flips out for.

PAUL “That’s the greatest song in the history of compositions!”

HURWITZ And then you move on, and you’re grateful that he pushed you to keep going and get there.

Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, La La Land

“City of Stars” features one of the film’s main musical themes. How did you hit upon it?

JUSTIN HURWITZ  That one went through a lot of versions. There were drafts that were numbered “27SS” or something. Damien said, “There has to be a yearning theme in the movie, which we can also use as a song.” So I started thinking of the tone of it, something that’s optimistic but melancholy. That’s what I was thinking about when I was composing: “How do we straddle both those tones, and how do I fall into major and then fall into minor?”

BENJ PASEK It was the first melody we heard from the movie, and we were captivated. It was a beautiful, yearning, melancholy melody, and putting words to it was our audition to be the lyricists for this film. We flew out to L.A. and presented them with the first lyric we came up with, which was “City of Stars.” And it went through a process from there, but a lot of it has remained.

Damien had talked about the movie as a whole, saying that L.A. is a town that might kick you, but it does it with a smile. And wanting to capture both of those elements was hugely inspirational to us in writing the words to that melody.

HURWITZ We had the demo, but we didn’t know what the words were or what it was about. And when we first heard their lyrics, it was such a revelation — it was about these characters and where they were in the story, but it was also about the city.

la la land

How about “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”? Did that go through a lot of different versions as well?
HURWITZ I think it was the last new melody for the film that I wanted to tackle. We knew how important the song was going to be, and we wanted it to gestate for a while. So he had written what the scene was about and I was thinking about it emotionally, but we kind of waited.

And it was pretty much the first idea I had when I sat down at the piano. It came out very easily, because I really connected to the scene and the character Damien had written. I was just trying to write what I felt the song was about.

JUSTIN PAUL Originally, there was a question about what this scene was going to be. Was [Emma Stone’s character] Mia going to be reading sides from a script in her audition? But Damien wrote a beautiful monologue where she just ended up telling a story about her aunt in Paris. And many of the elements of that monologue were what’s now lyricized in the song.

It was so clear, the music Justin had written and the monologue Damien had written, that reading the monologue and listening to the music just made sense.

Did you worry about writing a line as familiar as “Here’s to the dreamers?”
PAUL I remember thinking, “Is this a cliché, or is it exactly what you’d want to say in this moment?” We did have that discussion as a group, and that’s when it really kicked in what is so beautiful about what Damien and Justin have done in this movie. There’s no cynicism, no irony in it. It really is a love letter to movie musicals, to L.A., to bittersweet optimism, to dreaming.

PASEK To dreamers.

Click here to read more from the Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.

OscarWrap Hidden Figures cover