Song Exploder: The Secrets of La La Land’s Pivotal Final Number

Photo: Lionsgate

This fall, Vulture is partnering with the podcast Song Exploder for a series of episodes on the most interesting film scores of the year. Here, host Hrishikesh Hirway interviews La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz, as well as lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul about “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” the Emma Stone solo number that forms the movie’s climax and thesis statement. Below, the trio explains the song composition, the help they got from director Damien Chazelle, and how Stone had to sing the whole thing in a single take.

Edited excerpts from the conversation follow; listen to the episode below, and subscribe to Song Exploder on iTunes.

Justin Hurwitz on the song’s composition:
This was the last song I composed. We wanted to understand what the rest of the music was in the movie before we tackled this. It’s a really emotional scene and it’s a really pivotal scene, narratively. Based on conversations I’d been having with Damien, I think I knew emotionally what this scene had to be. It’s an optimistic song. It’s about never giving up and it’s about having these dreams that you believe in and that you chase forever. But that idea just has some sadness in it as well because it’s about never giving up, which means you’re not there yet, which means life might be difficult at the moment. I knew that it had to ultimately have this sort of bittersweet tone to it.

Emma Stone’s character, Mia, is an actress. She’s an aspiring actress and she’s been through the ringer in Los Angeles. She’s been through one heartbreaking audition after another. She’s given up on acting at this moment in the movie and she’s convinced to come back for one last audition. In this audition, she starts talking about an aunt of hers who inspired her to be an actress, who never gave up on her art and always dreamed big. So this song, it’s about this aunt, but it also has this larger theme about dreamers. I went through so many versions of melodies for other songs and pieces of material, but this one came out very easily. And I think that’s because I really connected to the idea of being a frustrated artist, having these dreams.

Hurwitz on how the scene slowly bleeds from speech to song:
The scene starts with Mia talking to the film’s director and the casting director. The song proper starts when she says, “barefoot, she smiled.”  When I first composed that, those were notes, they had pitches. But as we started thinking about actually making the scene, we were rehearsing it with Emma, and Damien was thinking about how the scene was going to be shaped. It became clear that those needed to actually kind of be pitchless; she needed to slip into song. So there’s a gradation from spoken to song.

Justin Paul on his favorite line of lyrics, which rhyme freezing with sneezing:
The fact that we have a song in there that talks about someone sneezing, that’s cool. We feel very lucky that Damien let us write songs with specific lyrics and really told stories with details. There was never a push to write sort of more accessible pop-ified lyrics that were general and didn’t tell stories much.

Benj Pasek on the different between pop songs and theater songs:
This is something that our musical-theater professor at the University of Michigan taught us in differentiating between pop songs and theater songs. He would say, “A pop song is like an adjective: It’s all about how it makes you feel. And a theater song you have to approach like it’s a verb: It’s what the action is and what’s going to change.” We like thinking about songs that move stories forward. In particular, on this song, it was our goal to try to make it as much as a verb as possible; once Mia sings it, things change forever for her. And Damien and Justin giving us permission to let this be a verb and not just an adjective — not just be about a feeling, but about story — is something that we really were excited to try.

Hurwitz on shooting the scene:
This is not a studio vocal. Emma was not lip-syncing. She was singing it live on set. I was accompanying her on piano, letting her lead the song and take the space she needed to act it. 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. That’s what happens when two people make music together; things are not perfectly in sync. That’s why it feels musical and why it feels real and honest. But I was so nervous playing the piano because this was such a big moment for Emma and I knew we were only going to get so many takes. Emma’s voice was only going to last for so long. I don’t understand fully what actors do, but I don’t know how many times they can go back and be that emotional, so I knew that every take was valuable. I was so afraid of missing a note and derailing the song. Oh my god, that would have been a disaster if I had screwed up the piano and the song had come to a screeching halt.

Randy Kerber is playing the piano in the actual recording. He’s an amazing session musician who played all of the jazz piano. But the piano was one thing that we felt we had to record separately from the orchestra. The piano interacts with the vocal in such an intimate way and we had to let Randy kind of come to terms with the vocal performance and really feel it with the vocal in the way that I was feeling it on set with Emma.

We worked with Emma a lot in pre-production. All of those rehearsals were to help learn the song on a technical level, to learn the notes, to learn the shape of it. And the idea was that she would learn the song, she would get it in her bones so that when she got to set, she could act it and she could get emotional. She’s on the verge of tears at the end of the song; she’s able to do all of that because she knew the song so well. It’s one shot. There are no picture edits in the scene. So we couldn’t cut between the best of this take and the best of that take. It had to be nailed all in one shot.

Hurwitz on the music theory at work in the song:
So the melody unfolds, piano accompanies, and then we get to the chorus. And I start introducing more dissonance into the piano accompaniment [at “Here’s to the ones who dream”] but it resolves in the major key [at “Foolish as they may seem”]. And I use a major seventh. It cuts the major-ness of it, helps it from feeling too straightforward in its emotion. I think it helps it feel emotionally complex and unsettled. I go for so much movement in general because that’s the case for people’s emotions. People’s emotions are constantly changing. You can feel a hundred things in under a second. I like the music to have all these different feelings in it. If I just grabbed a triad and stuck with it for the whole measure, it would be a few seconds of feeling the same thing, which I don’t think is how people feel.

In the next verse, the strings enter. It’s first violins, violas, and cellos. I was saving the second violins because I wanted them to come in later with a high shimmering part. In the second chorus of the song, the winds and the brass enter. It’s just a solo bassoon line that comes in and hands off to a solo horn line. It’s a dialogue between bassoon and horn in this chorus. At the bridge of the song, the lyric says, “A bit of madness is key.” That’s where the bridge starts and the piano is now playing these faster arpeggios and is pretty much doing that for the rest of the song. We wanted it to start feeling magical. The orchestration now really takes over and does the heavy lifting. And the woodwinds now start trilling. This is the first time that Emma’s really belting in the song.

Right after the lyric, “Crazy as they may seem,” the strings have this upward gesture. It’s the most optimistic the song gets. Mia is really singing the theme of the song. She’s turned the song from being about her aunt specifically, to about dreamers everywhere. She’s singing about how important it is to pursue your art. It’s a very dramatic lyric, it’s a very dramatic emotion, and the orchestra’s equally dramatic.

And then we come to the outro of the song. We’re returning to reality. We’re returning to Mia being in the audition room. The flute trills, they’re there just to keep just a little bit of magic. So the second to last chord is, in nerdy music theory terms, the minor four chord. And we want to resolve in the key that we’re in, which is A major at the end of the song. It just wants to go home, in a bittersweet way. The A is implied, but it’s never given to you. The very last word of the song, when Emma says “Again,” it’s a capella. The piano has dropped out.

Hurwtiz on the song’s message:
This song is optimistic, but also there’s pain in it. And Mia’s life isn’t resolved at the end of this. There’s something nice about not tying it up with a bow and making it too tidy at the end. This song is really special for me and I’m just so proud of it. I think it’s exactly what we envisioned this scene and this song would be. When Damien and I first started developing this, we had this musical we wanted to make. Nobody was letting us make it. We were so passionate about it and there didn’t seem to be a path to realize that dream of making La La Land. So we were feeling a lot of the same things that the characters in this movie are feeling: having these dreams, but not having permission to make your art yet. I still feel like a dreamer. I don’t feel accomplished yet, really. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived. I’d like to think that will always be the case because if I stop feeling like a dreamer, then I don’t think my music is going to be very good.

Song Exploder: Inside La La Land’s ‘Audition’