Meet Justin Hurwitz, the man most likely to win an Oscar

Composer Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the music for the musical film La La Land, which is set in and all around Los Angeles, includes scenes at Griffith Observatory on November 9, 2016, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)


By MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Chicago Tribune | Published: February 21, 2017

Of all the Academy Awards contenders this season, the surest sure thing heading into pre-Oscars week is Justin Hurwitz, the 31-year-old composer of "La La Land."

He and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have been nominated for two of the original score's songs, "City of Stars" (likely to win, not my favorite) and "Audition," also known as "The Fools Who Dream." Hurwitz is also up for best original score. He's extraordinarily likely to win that one, along with sharing the best song Oscar. So I'm guessing Feb. 26 will be a big night for both Hurwitz and his old Harvard roommate, "La La Land" writer-director Damien Chazelle.

Chazelle and Hurwitz dragged their unfashionable passion project, a jazz-based musical romance without a traditional happy ending, all around Hollywood, for years. Then Chazelle made a short, trial-sized version of "Whiplash," a music-soaked melodrama about a young jazz drummer and his Svengali of a mentor, to prove he could make a movie (even though he'd already done so; more on that in a few paragraphs). After the short version, Chazelle made the feature-length "Whiplash," cheaply and efficiently and well; J.K. Simmons snagged an Oscar his supporting performance. And then Lionsgate put the $30 million up for "La La Land," which has sold nearly $300 million in tickets worldwide.

Not everybody loves it. Some, in fact, hate it, and some wouldn't like it even if it they liked it, because they come from a place of skepticism/disdain/bile regarding movie musicals. Whatever. It's a free country, more or less. Hurwitz told me on the phone the other day that few things in life for a composer, arranger and orchestrator are more wish-fulfilling than walking on the Sony Pictures recording studio, where the old MGM musicals were made, and hearing your work played by a 95-piece orchestra.

"After dreaming about it and talking about it with Damien for years," Hurwitz said, "that was really something."

The shrewdly considered influences on Hurwitz's "La La Land" score include Michel Legrand's music for the Jacques Demy musicals "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort." By way of example: Hurwitz told me his original orchestration for the "La La Land" traffic-jam intro, "Another Day of Sun," went for the throat and the strings and the bombast more conventionally. Upon further review, Hurwitz took a cue from the way Legrand's Demy musicals let the jazz rhythm section interact with the full orchestra. The results are subtler and intoxicating, and when Angela Parrish (the unseen vocalist; the dancer in yellow, Reshma Gajjar, lip-synchs the words) performs the first few lines about leaving Santa Fe to chase her showbiz dreams, it's as if we're eavesdropping on a private thought, rather than getting clobbered with virtuosity.

Hurwitz's feature film debut was just as unusual as the "La La Land" phenomenon. For Chazelle's Harvard graduate thesis project, he and Hurwitz decided to make a 16-millimeter black-and-white cinema verite jazz musical released in 2009 called "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," music by Hurwitz, lyrics by Chazelle. (The soundtrack, thanks to the success of "La La Land," is finally available, due out March 17.)

Chazelle's idea with "Guy and Madeline," according to Hurwitz, was to contrast the hand-held, black-and-white aesthetic with a lush, extravagant orchestral sound. A significant percentage of the minuscule production budget financed a trip for Hurwitz to Bratislava, Slovakia, where the local symphony had been hired for a single, four-hour "Guy and Madeline" recording session. Featuring 85 musicians. For a composer's first film. A student film.

At the moment, Hurwitz is back on his other career track: comedy. He's a writer-producer on the ninth season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." When he was mixing the "La La Land" score, he told me, he didn't have the next musical assignment lined up yet, and he was more than happy to join "Curb Your Enthusiasm." (His earlier writing credits include a "Simpsons" episode and several episodes of "The League.") Chazelle's next film, already announced, is a Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, his "La La Land" headliner, and that project may well bring composer Hurwitz back into the fold. As for "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Hurwitz told me Larry David has been a comedy god to him since Hurwitz was in high school in Glendale, Wis., north of Milwaukee.

And now, thanks to Hurwitz's "La La Land" score, the world is newly peppered with young fans of movie musicals who are just now learning about all the musicals before it.


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