Every year, mostly in November and December, Variety asks me to see a nonstop barrage of new movies and interview their composers. This year’s crop included Justin Hurwitz for Babylon, Marcelo Zarvos for Emancipation, Chanda Dancy for Devotion, Nicholas Britell for She Said, Ludwig Goransson for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Hildur Guonadottir for Tar, Terence Blanchard for The Woman King, Michael Abels for Nope, Benjamin Wallfisch for Thirteen Lives, and Michael Giacchino for The Batman.
The new film First Man, which chronicles the 1960s experiences of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong (first to land on the moon in 1969), reunited composer Justin Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle — both of whom earned Oscars for their musical La La Land in 2016. On Oct. 14, Hurwitz and Chazelle joined me for a lively discussion of their collaboration on the film; why they felt that a theremin and vintage Moog synthesizer sounds were appropriate musical choices; and the advantages of a composer having his studio literally next door to where the film was being edited. The occasion was a Society of Composers & Lyricists screening at the Linwood Dunn Theater.
I couldn’t wait to see First Man — in part because manned spaceflight was my obsession all through the 1960s and I have very vivid memories of watching Neil Armstrong set foot upon the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, and also because I was fascinated by how director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz would top their Oscar-winning work on La La Land in 2016. I spent time on the recording stage as Hurwitz conducted all of the key musical sequences and then interviewed him in his studio (complete with Moog synthesizer, theremin and vintage Echoplex machine), followed by a phone conversation with Chazelle. The results, published in Variety, are here.
Justin Hurwitz talks about composing the songs and score for La La Land; Dustin O’Halloran discusses the complexities of writing the music for Lion with another composer on the other side of the world; and Nicholas Britell explains how a hip-hop technique informed his piano-and-violin score for Moonlight. SoundWorks Collection offered a rare opportunity to go in-depth with each of these Oscar-nominated composers, talking about the unique challenges of each film and even playing their key themes at the piano. Here is the Hurwitz video, shot in a unique North Hollywood location; here is O’Halloran, in his Los Angeles studio; and here is Britell, talking and performing in L.A.’s legendary Nightbird studio. The series is called “Road to the Oscars,” and I was delighted to be its host.
While the general public may not be thinking about Oscars this early in the year, the reality is that awards season is already well underway in Hollywood. Screenings of November-December releases are in full swing, awards consultants are emailing and phoning, and Variety has begun its coverage of potential honorees. Here is the backstory of the music of La La Land, certain to be one of the most talked-about late-year releases. I was fascinated by what initially inspired composer Justin Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle to create this magical movie. Also in the Nov. 1 issue, I explore why so few spring and early-summer films are ever nominated for their music; and offer a detailed look at the unusual South Pacific music of Disney’s upcoming Moana, including an interview with Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.