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Raised in Fox Point, Justin Hurwitz (right) composed the Oscar-winning music for "La La Land." (PHOTO: Flickr/Activités culturelles UdeM)

Oscar-winning composer Hurwitz brings "La La Land" back to where he grew up

No movie will ever get as close to winning Best Picture as "La La Land." After all, the cast and crew were memorably on the stage, holding the trophies and giving speeches when the biggest snafu in Oscar – and possibly television – history revealed itself and awkwardly handed the moment over to "Moonlight."

But while "La La Land" may have lost Best Picture – meaning it'll only have to be remembered as an ravingly reviewed box office smash, a melancholy musical confection that merely won six Oscars – composer Justin Hurwitz definitely walked away a winner, a two-time winner at that for the film's score and the irrepressible "City of Stars." Not a bad way to follow-up "Whiplash," his previous music-themed collaboration with writer-director Damien Chazelle which scored three Academy Awards of its own and a place on many critics' best of the decade lists (including yours truly).

Now, in between helping write and produce the upcoming return of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and his next collaboration with Chazelle – a biopic about Neil Armstrong starring "La La Land" lead Ryan Gosling – he's bringing his tribute to the city of stars back to the city where he spent most of his teen years: Milwaukee, where he lived in Fox Point and went to high school at Nicolet. Back then, he watched the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra play the great composers; this weekend, for two shows split between Friday and Saturday at the Riverside, it'll be his work highlighted by the MSO.

Before the curtain rises, we chatted with Hurwitz about learning and loving music in Milwaukee, as well as making a musical movie sensation.

OnMilwaukee: Do you remember any formative musical or movie memories from your time growing up here in Milwaukee?

Justin Hurwitz: I took piano lessons with Stefanie Jacob at the Wisconsin Conservatory, and those were really important years. I played a lot of great repertoire with Stefanie, and she really mixed it up. I played a mixture of baroque, like Bach, with classical – Mozart and Beethoven – and romantic music, later music like Chopin and Debussy. I think it was great mixture of repertoire because I've gotten all sorts of things that I do as a composer, I think, come from that repertoire. I'm kind of obsessed with counterpoint, and I think that comes from the Bach I played. A lot of the later music I played with her – the Grieg and the Chopin – definitely influenced my sense of harmony. All of the music I played during those years definitely played a role in what I do as a composer.

My family also went to the MSO several times a year, and that was great. We saw a lot of great concerts. Andreas Delfs was the director at that time. A lot of great repertoire there. I think that was the time when I really started paying attention to an orchestra. I remember I would almost watch more than I would listen. We sat in the loge, so we had sort of a nice view down onto the stage, and I could really see who was playing at any given time. I started getting interested in the anatomy of an orchestra and all of the textures that exist within an orchestra and the different handoffs that exist between musicians.

I think that definitely influenced me going forward as a composer and orchestrator. Orchestration is a big part of the process for me, and I love thinking about those members of the orchestra and the sections as I'm writing all of those textures – and I think a lot of that comes from getting to watch an orchestra in action during my childhood for so many years.

And now your music is going to be played by the MSO.

That is really surreal. I had a lot of dreams – lofty dreams, even, at different points growing up. And as soon as I started thinking about becoming a composer, I started fantasizing about certain types of achievements as a composer, but for some reason, it never occurred to me that my music would be played by the Milwaukee Symphony.

First of all, when we were there going to these concerts, film music wasn't really programmed – at least as far as I knew. So we were going to see the great composers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and there weren't these live-to-picture movie screenings. I don't even remember any other suites of film music, at least that we went to. So I did start to think, around that time, about having a career myself in film music, but it never occurred to me that my music could be played by, what I would consider, a classical symphony orchestra like the MSO.

So much of "La La Land" is intertwining these old musical references with something new. How do you balance those two?

You're getting at exactly the biggest challenge of it, which was taking inspiration from the past but making something that hopefully felt new. I think the fact that it was played by a real 95-piece orchestra in a room just helps it feel inherently old fashioned. There's something about that approach that isn't done as much these days.

Beyond that, I was looking for melodies that felt honest to the drama of the movie and the characters of the movie and the emotions of the movie, and wouldn't feel 1950s or 1940s or 1930s melodies or harmonies. There's certain exceptions: Some of the jazz that I wrote for the jazz club in the movie, those were meant to be period pieces in some ways because we wanted to sell that this is a real old-school jazz club that plays old-school repertoire. Those were new pieces but made to sound old fashioned. And then there were a couple of songs, like "A Lovely Night," which was deliberately old fashioned because it was meant to be more of a wink to a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers song.

But when I was composing something like "City of Stars" or "Audition" or "Another Day of Sun," I was really not trying to sound like any era. I was just looking for melodies that I thought had the right amount of melancholy or optimism or heartbreak or whatever they needed to be. And then orchestrating in a style that, because it's an orchestra, because it has jazz bass and jazz drums, it's going to sound old fashioned to some extent, but hopefully finding new colors and textures that are not things that you heard in the '30s, '40s, '50s or '60s.

What was it like creating songs for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who have musical backgrounds but aren't Broadway-trained singers?

They were truly the dream cast. They are the people Damien and I were talking about – and as well as the producers – years before we ever had the ability to actually work with them.

We just love their voices, as well. The fact that they're actors first and singers second is something that actually really attracted us to their voices, because their voices feel like real people. When they sing, it sounds like an extension of their dialogue. The voices have a real intimacy and real authenticity to them, and that was something we loved – in Emma's voice in particular. There's a real breathy, vulnerability to it. Damien and I have always loved voices like that. Audrey Hepburn had a voice like that; the way she sings "Moon River," for example, is one of our favorite styles of singing, which is just really simple and emotional without being overly ornate. That's the kind of voice Emma has, and Ryan has a similar authenticity in his voice. So we really enjoyed working with them and their voices.

And they're such great actors, and they had such a great sense and ownership over their own characters. They had a really good sense of how to go from being a normal talking character into their own singing character, and how to bridge that, and how to make it feel natural. One of the things Damien and I were looking to do was we didn't want it to be the kind of musical where you feel the song turn on, where you feel the track turn on. We wanted it to all flow seamlessly, and a lot of that falls on the actors to really get in and out of those musical numbers in a natural way. And they did that incredibly well.

Obviously, "La La Land" was critically applauded, as well as did very well at the box office. Do you think this is going to spark an increase in musicals coming out of Hollywood?

Maybe. I would love it if "La La Land" somehow has the effect that a few more musicals get made that wouldn't have otherwise. I don't know if musicals ever really stopped getting made – at least in the past 10-20 years. Most of the original ones are animated or based on some kind of piece of material, like a fairy tale. But there have been some totally original ones, and I know there are some other film musicals kind of in the pipeline that are going to be out in the next year or two that were already in the pipeline to some extent before "La La Land." But if "La La Land" can somehow help a couple more original musicals get made, I would love that – just because I love going to musicals.


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