Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle have a good thing going. After meeting as roommates at Harvard, the creative partners have gone on to collaborate on five films together — Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016), First Man (2018), and Babylon — with Chazelle directing and Hurwitz composing the score. The partnership has been a fruitful one, too, with Chazelle winning Best Director and Hurwitz winning Best Original Score and Best Original Song for La La Land.
"I love working with Damien because he loves music and he cares so much about the music in his movies," Hurwitz tells A.frame. "He thinks about music really early in his process, which is great for me because it gives me time to really develop it. We also have a really respectful collaboration where neither one of us ever pushes the other one into something we're not happy with. He'll never force me to do music that I'm not happy with and I'll never try to force music on him."
Their newest film, Babylon, is perhaps their most ambitious to date, chronicling the film industry's transition from silent films to talking pictures. Set in the late 1920s during the early days of Hollywood, the film is a free-wheeling fever dream following would-be stars and other Tinseltown players as they attempt to make it by any means necessary. Like Chazelle and Hurwitz's previous ode to Hollywood, La La Land, the score is faithful to the time period yet feels completely modern.
"Given that Damien wrote the wildest movie ever, we wanted to really err on the side of wildness and avoid the pleasant, quaint jazz that we think of with the '20s," says the composer. "We wanted to do something that was really sometimes aggressive, sometimes unbridled, sometimes unhinged, sometimes really just going off the rails."
Hurwitz breaks down the movie's sound as such: "The movie's full of parties where everybody's on uppers and there's debauchery everywhere, and so we imagined a band that is really just going for it — a band on the verge of going off the rails all the time. It's a style of playing that's not super '20s. It's screaming saxes and wailing trumpets." In fact, for those party sequences, which features on-screen jazz-band performances, Hurwitz found inspiration in some unlikely genres: EDM, modern house, and rock and roll. "I was imagining rock and roll riffs played by a horn section. I was listening to The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, White Stripes, and imagining if you took those aggressive riffs and played them by horns, what that could sound like."
The process of putting together such a colossal score took Hurwitz roughly three years, beginning in 2019 after reading Chazelle's script. He crafted some demos in early 2020 based off the director's storyboards, but then, as Hurwitz deadpans, "March 2020, yeah, something happened."
The pandemic delayed production of Babylon by a year, but that allowed the duo to dig even deeper into the creative process. "This happened before in developing La La Land," Hurwitz recalls. "We were ready to go and then the plug got pulled, and we had all this extra time. We had a lot of things that we thought were really great, but when you get extra time, we step back and we say, 'Well, maybe these are really good but these we could probably do better.' And we did the same with Babylon."
He adds, "It was a blessing in disguise. And I suppose there's a point where you can overthink something and throw the baby out with the bath water, but my experience is that we end up making things better. I like sending music to people and seeing what's working. I love when we screen our movies, you can see what's working for people and just try to keep the good and throw out the bad and keep distilling, really."
As he developed the score for Babylon, Hurwitz found himself searching outside of the traditional orchestral performers to build the film unique sound. "I wanted really special voices in this score," he says. That meant pulling in saxophone performers like Jacob Scesney and Leo Pellegrino, who recorded from his bedroom in Philadelphia, to create what he calls "dance sax" for the film. He recruited trumpeters like Sean Jones, Dontae Winslow, and Ludo Lewis for the music of the film's on-screen trumpet player, Sidney (played by Jovan Adepo).
"When it came to the improv, a lot of players knew we were making a 1920s movie, so they tended to play very '20s-sounding solos. Very old fashioned solos," Hurwitz explains. "And it was very hard to describe: 'Can you be more avant garde? But not so avant garde that it's just totally atonal...' But we wanted to thread the needle between tonal and strange."
There is over two hours of original music in the movie, which also saw Hurwitz stepping out of his comfort zone to experiment with circus sounds. "Because the whole movie's such as circus," he laughs. "I recorded kazoos, slide whistles, party horns, other circus instruments like a calliope. There's a bit of erhu, this bowed Chinese instrument. There's just a lot. It's a very eclectic and eccentric score." The soundtrack builds to a climax that gave Hurwitz the opportunity to really go wild with his instrumentation.
"We bring back pretty much all the melodies from the movie and they're all swirling around in this cacophony," he points out. He compares the number to La La Land's "Epilogue," but with a twist. "Because in La La Land, a bunch of the melodies come back, but they move in sequence. They go one after another. It's, I guess, more elegant in how they flow from one to the next. For this, the idea was, what if we put every single melody from the movie over each other at the same time? How do I make that work?"
Hurwitz drew on what he'd learned about counterpoint while studying music composition and orchestration at school ("in terms of putting multiple melodies over each other"), but at a certain point, he had to throw caution to the wind and get a little raucous himself. "I was trying to let go of all those rules of classical music and allow this to be messy in a good way and ugly in a good way," he says. "With all sorts of clashes between instruments and notes and themes, but at the same time balancing the cacophony with the crafted."
"A lot went into that," he reflects. "That sequence is definitely a trip in the movie, and I'm excited to actually put the track out, so people can kind of hear what's in there."
By Elizabeth Stanton