The best song category has become a vital platform for addressing social and political issues and this season it has intensified. Damien Chazelle’s frontrunner musical “La La Land” boasts two songs about the cost of love and ambition (“City of Stars,” and “Audition”); Justin Timberlake’s happiness anthem from DreamWorks’ animated “Trolls” (“Can’t Stop the Feeling!”) became last year’s best-selling single; J. Ralph and Sting collaborated on “Empty Chair” from the HBO doc about the eponymous slain photojournalist and social activist (“Jim: The James Foley Story”); and Tori Amos offered “Flicker” from the Netflix doc, “Audrie & Daisy,” about teen sexual assault and cyberbullying.
“City of Stars,” “Audition” (“La La Land”)
Tony and Emmy-nominated composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were tasked with creating two very different odes to dreamers and dreaming in collaboration with writer-director Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz.
“‘City of Stars’ was sort of our audition for the film,” Pasek told IndieWire. “We were given a piece of music by Justin Hurwitz to see what we could come up with. We thought the music was so beautiful, so haunting in its yearning and melancholy. And if the emotion is so full, you have permission to
underwrite the lyric.”
Chazelle not only wanted the song to be about Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) but also about LA as a dream palace. “And when you reach for these impossible goals, you’re heart can break, but you try again the next morning,” added Pasek. “Originally it was written for Mia and it became a song for Sebastian and then it was turned into a duet. It’s also ironic because the song represents their last joyful moment together.”
By contrast, “Audition,” one of the last songs they composed, benefited from a monologue that Chazelle wrote, which provided rich detail about Mia’s life and longing to be an actress.
“Unlike pop songs, which are about adjectives, this song’s about using verbs to move the story,” continued Pasek. “Damien and Justin [Hurwitz] were great at helping us hunt for what verbs were in the song and what changes as a result of her singing.”
Added Paul: “Of course, there’s an argument to be made that the more detailed and graphic the situation can be, the more we can apply it to our own
lives and make it more relatable.”
“Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (“Trolls”)
The song, which represents the biggest emotional when the villainous Bergens discover their inner Troll. was a tricky challenge for Timberlake. “For me, it was an interesting tight rope, not getting too theatrical and specific, but also not being so ambiguous as a pop song that it made no sense at all,” he told IndieWire.
“How do we present this idea of finding your own happiness without sounding too preachy and it still has to be unabashed?”
Fortunately, it was an advantage voicing Branch, the gloomy, Bergen-fearing Troll. “Because I got so much source material to work off of to write the song,” Timberlake added. “A lot of times when you’re writing for a movie, they give you one scene, but I got to know the whole movie.”
“Empty Chair” (“Jim: The James Foley Story”)
Two-time Oscar-nominated J. Ralph (“Manta Ray,” “Before My Time”) was immediately drawn to the doc about Foley’s devotion to exposing the casualties of war after being in the same part of Africa where he was slain. “I felt this kindred connection to Jim and this idealism to help make the world a better place through music as another way into the film,” Ralph told IndieWire. “And I became so connected to the material that I had this main theme that I was working on.”
Ralph screened the movie for Sting, who was devastated but uncertain about collaborating on the song. “My first reaction was: I can’t write a song about this but then had an epiphany later that night over dinner with my family,” Sting told IndieWire. “I imagined if one of my kids was missing and there was an empty chair there. I wanted to deal with what its like to have a child in danger and that was really the thrust of it. Once I found that metaphor, I wrote the song very quickly.”
Sting also performed the song in a lower register. “I wanted it to be more the intimate voice of Jim Foley and less about me grandstanding in a power range,” he added. “Jim represents what the world loves about America — ‘stand up, speak your mind at your own danger to protect the people around you.’ “
“Flicker” (“Audrie & Daisy”)
Amos, meanwhile, was devastated by the three cases of teenage rape depicted in the doc and the horrifying ripple effect of bullying through social media. “The idea that your peer group, when somebody’s unconscious, [would] assault them, draw all over them, then take pictures of them and put it up to the world and humiliate them,” she told IndieWire. “The cyber bullying as well… it’s almost as though they’re in some kind of battle mode every time they leave the house.”
Amos, who hadn’t realized that sexual assault had permeated middle school, utilized imagery of redemption and healing in her song. She also altered a key phrase from the doc (“Monsters aren’t born — they’re made”) by substituting the word “Heroines.”
“I had to go into an isolation,” Amos said. “I do that sometimes as a writer to detach in order to hear. There were a few issues that the song had to hold: One was Audrie’s story (whose light was extinguished too soon) and also Daisy and Delaney, who particularly went from victim consciousness to
“And to also make sure that neighbors and communities were culpable for their silence or for turning their backs on these girls…and, of course, the sexual act itself had to be covered and targeted.”