Damien Chazelle, Justin Hurwitz, and the genius intersection of film and music
Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash
French-American director, producer, and screenwriter Damien Chazelle was born in the small town of Providence, Rhode Island in 1985. Here, he grew up with simultaneous passions to become a filmmaker, while also wanting to be a musician, all while struggling to make it as a jazz drummer at Princeton High School. Chazelle attended Harvard University for college, where he lived with composer and musician Justin Hurwitz, his soon-to-be frequent collaborator and friend. The two joined the school band together, as well as an indie-pop band "Chester French," and soon enough, they collaborated on Chazelle's senior thesis project and directorial debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009).

Since then, the two have frequently collaborated on projects, and Justin has scored all of Chazelle's feature-length films up-to-date, including La La Land (2016), Whiplash (2014), First Man (2018), and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). Chazelle's film motifs, as well as Justin's accompanying scores frequently feature jazz music, and it is easy to see both artists' inspiration drawing from their experience in the Harvard jazz band.
Their first project, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is a black-and-white romantic film that features live jazz performances and tap dancing and takes on a more traditional musical style of the late 40s-50s. Whiplash, made a few years after, is a story of a promising jazz drummer who joins the band at a prestigious conservatory, and experiences an extreme instructor who treats music, especially jazz, as an all-consuming endeavor. And, of course, their most recent work, La La Land, is a modern take on the traditional musical, featuring jazz as a centric idea in the film's narrative and musical elements.

What is so intriguing about the way the duo collaborates, is that they often center a film's visual aspect entirely around music. As such, the music is often determined before the visual aspects, instead of the more traditional method that does the bulk of this process during post-production. This aspect of their collaboration is perhaps the main reason they are so brilliant together. The two consider music as a central component of film — even the very foundation of it — rather than an accompaniment or afterthought.

As Chazelle stated in his 2018 interview with TIFF Originals about creating First Man, "Justin was working on main theme melodies before we started shooting…In certain cases, we would sometimes shoot to music."

In a way, the two structure every collaborative project as a musical, centering the plot around musical cues and ideating songs before the visual aspects are determined. This method creates a much more in-tune and emotional experience for the audience. As an example, the score for First Man has been applauded by musicians and film-lovers alike.

Musicians are able to notice the unique intricacies within the score, and the layering of different textures Hurwitz was able to achieve throughout the movie. Hurwitz discusses in his 2018 interview with Deadline how he is able to evoke both complete "intimacy in some cases, but also grand spaciness in other cases" within the score for First Man. Even if you know nothing about music, this score is emotionally moving, both in its evocation of triumph, as well as isolation and loneliness.

While the pair has worked on several musical films as well as non-musical (like First Man), Hurwitz spoke on the innate differences of working on these different types of films again in his interview with TIFF Originals.
"We had a lot of ideas going in, and a lot figured out going in, but once you start seeing it… then, then you understand what this movie is and what this work is to be."
The visual style of a specific film influences the feeling of the music and vice-versa when Chazelle and Hurwitz work together, creating a sort of symphony between the auditory and the visual in their films.

Perhaps the most impressive of the duo's work together is with the 2016 masterpiece, La La Land. This film truly breathes new life into the term 'musical,' and gives it an entirely new contemporary meaning to the traditional narrative and structure of musical cinema. As such, there was a lot of experimentation and trial and error within the film in terms of how the music was going to be organized within the film. Like jazz, the visual aspects of the film and the music act in a conversation with one another.

Namely, Hurwitz discussed in his interview with Groucho Reviews how, while he had rehearsed the 'audition scene' with Emma Stone ten times over, when they actually filmed it she began to act it out differently than he was prepared for. This led him to have to tweak his piano arrangement in response to Emma — and the eventual orchestral arrangement. The interviewer poignantly compared this situation to "accompanying a great jazz singer."

The film centers around two aspiring artists, Mia and Sebastian, and bridges the gap between realism and fantasy within the contemporary context of Los Angeles. Not only does the music perfectly encapsulate the feeling of desire, and longing for a particular dream or goal, but it flows incredibly throughout the film, almost to the point where you don't know that a musical number is going to start until you are fully immersed within it.
Photo by Enzo Boulet on Unsplash
"The whole idea was to have this be a continuum with everything… to not have this be a 'stop and start' musical. Obviously, the numbers begin and end to a certain extent, but it should feel very seamless…" shared director Chazelle.

La La Land encapsulates "The heights of musical spectacle that we're used to with old Hollywood - with a more documentary-informed sense of realism."

Seamlessness is one of the greatest triumphs in La La Land, and this is largely due to the script — which doubles as the lyrics — feeling organic, as well as the tone of speaking matching the tone of eventual singing. This adds to the sense of realism that Chazelle mentions. Instead of hearing cliché and tired lyrics that are too romanticized to be spoken in real life, we hear real person-to-person conversations in the style of song. Oftentimes in the film, non-musical, simple conversations even start to feel as though they have a rhythm to them (my favorite example of this is Mia and Sebastian's argument during dinner). The collaboration between Chazelle and Hurwitz in this sense is absolutely impeccable, and the duo is able to achieve what feels like a two-hour-long, uninterrupted musical number with visuals to match every beat.

What also stands out is their ability to create emotion within music and sound unlike any other director-composer duo, regardless of genre. Whether it be a space-centric experience, creating audio and visuals to capture the feeling of sadness and isolation like in First Man, or the anxiety-inducing Whiplash, Chazelle and Hurwitz hit the nail on the head no matter the genre.

Both Hurwitz and Chazelle have transcended many norms in the world of film and music and gained notoriety because of it. Namely, the film Whiplash received five Academy Award nominations, including best picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. In terms of sound, the film won the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing in 2015 and was nominated for the Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media the same year.

Once again in 2018, La La Land received astounding critical acclaim, winning all seven of its Golden Globe Nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Additionally, it received 14 Academy Award nominations — and made Chazelle the youngest person to date to win an Oscar for Best Director at the age of 32. For sound, Justin Hurwitz won two Academy Awards for La La Land: Best Original Score and Best Original Song for "City of Stars." The composer also won two Grammys in 2018, one for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, and another for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media — both for La La Land.

The two are currently working on a project entitled Babylon, which will be a period piece set in Hollywood during the historical transition out of the silent film era. The film is set to release this year and will feature stars such as Tobey Maguire, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. Once again, Chazelle will direct this feature while Hurwitz will create the score. I expect nothing but greatness from this project and look forward to seeing it this December to re-experience the wonderful musical and cinematic experience Chazelle and Hurwitz are able to create as a team.
Anna Kuelling is a Composium Ambassador who is currently expanding her knowledge of film music by studying Music Supervision at UCLA.
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