LA LA LAND – Justin Hurwitz
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
There has been so much cynicism and negativity in the news in 2016, that a film like La La Land is not so much a breath of fresh air, but a necessary antidote to the political and social upheaval that has swept across far too much of the world. It’s a sincere, optimistic love letter to the power of dreams and the joy of romance, an homage to classic Hollywood musicals, and a celebration of art and dance and music that wears its heart on its sleeve and looks you straight in the eye as it does so. Directed by Damien Chazelle, it stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Sebastian and Mia, two struggling artists trying to make it in contemporary Los Angeles. Sebastian is a jazz pianist frustrated by his lack of opportunities and the fact that no one seems to love the music he loves any more; Mia is an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop on a studio lot whose dreams are continually crushed by an endless parade of failed auditions. A series of chance meetings between the two slowly leads to a romantic relationship, and together the pair seeks to find a way through the perils and pitfalls of being young and creative in the City of Angels.
As I mentioned already, the best thing about La La Land is its complete lack of cynicism. This is a film which genuinely loves and supports artistic ideals, and encourages the members of the audience to cherish their talents, and shoot for the stars. It’s easy to be sarcastic these days, especially in Los Angeles, where every waiter is an actor, every barista is a songwriter, and every pizza delivery guy is a writer just waiting to be discovered, but La La Land embraces and celebrates these clichés as being the life blood of the city. The film is not averse to some knowing nods and winks – in fact, many people who live in the city will laugh at the LA-specific in-jokes, which take pot shots at everything from the weather to the traffic to its odd penchant for ‘fusion cuisine’ to the fact that everyone drives a Prius – but the bottom line is the encouragement for people to follow their dreams, whatever their dreams may be. Not only that, the film is a visual and aural delight; the lush cinematography, the creative art direction, and the bold costume designs are all worthy of mention. Director Chazelle makes use of many iconic Los Angeles landmarks, and shoots them in the same romantic light as other directors have shot New York, or London, or Paris, or Rome. My adopted home city has never looked so good.
Of course, the film’s other big selling point is that it is an all-singing all-dancing musical, a combination of classic jazz and Broadway show tunes with more than a dash of Hollywood magic. Composer Justin Hurwitz, songwriters Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, and choreographer Mandy Moore approached their task with a glorious freedom of expression, and emerged with several spectacular set pieces, which Gosling and Stone attack with realism, good humor, personality, and not a small amount of talent. The opening dance sequence on the 105 freeway (“Another Day of Sun”), the cheeky courtship song at magic hour in the Hollywood Hills (“A Lovely Night”), the glorious sequence inside the Griffith Observatory (“Planetarium”), Stone’s emotionally raw make-or-break audition (“The Fools Who Dream”), and the wish-fulfillment fantasy “Epilogue” are all stunningly realized sequences that combine excellent songwriting, joyous dancing, strong acting, and luxuriant cinematography into a memorable, enchanting whole.
There are two soundtrack albums for La La Land; one which showcases all the songs along with a small selection of score material, and one which presents all of Justin Hurwitz’s score on its own, sans songs. There is a great deal of overlap, thematically, between the two albums, so this review will discuss them simultaneously. Hurwitz’s score is built around five central themes: one for Mia, one for Sebastian, two for Mia & Sebastian together, and one for the overall concept of ‘Hollywood’ and the limelight ambitions of the young and the idealistic.
The Hollywood theme is the cornerstone of the two opening songs , “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” a pair of upbeat, optimistic pieces which take an almost Latin beat with infectious drum rhythms, and blends it with jazz orchestrations that spotlight trumpets, piano, and guitars in the former, and flighty woodwinds in the latter. The occasional banjos deep down in the orchestration remind me of Mary Poppins, of all things, while the lyrics are all about the dreams of those baristas and waiters I mentioned earlier; how this could be the day where everything changes, where they finally get discovered, where all their hopes and aspirations and years of hard work finally pay off, if only they could nail the audition, or meet the right person. In the score, the Hollywood theme recurs a couple of times, notably in the slightly frantic-sounding “It Pays,” a full-on jazz arrangement of the melody with an especially prominent horn section and some wild improvised saxophone solos, and in the sultry “Chicken on a Stick,” where the full orchestra is replaced by a marimba and celesta.
Sebastian’s theme is realized as the song “City of Stars,” which emerges from a bed of undulating pianos, celesta and guitar accents, and whistles, into a thoughtful, wistful contemplation about the nature of fame and love, given weight by Ryan Gosling’s surprisingly soulful singing voice. Emma Stone’s impromptu giggles during their subsequent duet are infectious and adorable, and allow their blossoming relationship to seem all the more real. There is a guitar-led performance of the theme in the score in “Mia Hates Jazz,” and a much faster swing variation in “Boise,” but other than those two pieces Sebastian’s theme is unexpectedly absent for a great deal of it’s running time.
The score is instead anchored mostly by Mia’s theme, which gets its biggest moment in the sun during the searing, emotionally direct “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”. Here, Stone channels Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables and sings directly into the camera in unflinching close-up, belting out a powerful personal story about inspiration and the fleeting nature of fame. The song is basically the distillation of everything the film is about (“here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem, here’s to the hearts that ache, here’s to the mess we make”); the crack in Stone’s voice at 1:52, as she sings about her actress aunt’s flickering flame being extinguished in an anonymous fog of liquor and old memories, is spine-tingling stuff, while Hurwitz’s syncopated pianos and orchestral swells around 2:40 make it a showstopper. In the score proper Mia’s theme is heard on a delicate celesta accompanied by jazz textures in “Classic Rope-a-Dope,” the pretty and glittery “Bogart & Bergman,” and the slightly scatterbrained “The House in Front of the Library,” but like Sebastian’s theme it is always quite subtle and understated, and never properly flourishes and blossoms until the audition sequence – which is when Mia finally does too.
The love theme for Mia & Sebastian is a sentimental, bittersweet piano melody built around a 7-note cascade that is more melancholy than almost anything else in the score; it’s the piece that Sebastian is playing inside J. K. Simmons’s restaurant, which attracts Mia inside in the first place, and subsequently charts the ups and downs of their relationship. The melody receives a rapturous fully-orchestral statement in “Planetarium,” a festival of feather-light flutes, playful pizzicato, and surging strings that is simply magical. This theme is supplemented by an additional theme for Mia & Sebastian which appears in “A Lovely Night,” a playful bit of banter between the pair which pays loving homage to those classic Hollywood courtship songs, where the two protagonists sing and dance under the starlight and fall in love in spite of themselves. The central instrumental sequence is arranged as if by Alfred Newman or Johnny Green, and is reprised later in the score on whimsical marimbas in both “Stroll Up the Hill” and “There the Whole Time/Twirl,” as a jazz instrumental in “Rialto at Ten,” in the finger-snapping “Summer Montage/Madeline,” and the cheeky, wry “You Love Jazz Now”.
The final song, “Start a Fire,” is a wonderful piece of modern R&B funk, performed by superstar John Legend in character as Keith, the lead singer of the band Sebastian joins to make ends meet. In the context of the film we’re subliminally encouraged to dislike the song because it represents the compromise of musical standards Sebastian makes in order to become successful, but I personally think it’s a wonderful song, upbeat, with a killer chorus and a memorable hook.
Other cues of note include “Herman’s Habit” and “Cincinnati,” a pair of authentic-sounding modern jazz pieces for the usual complement of instruments – ivories, hi-hat, plucked bass, and horns. Elsewhere, “Engagement Party” plays like the downbeat flipside of Mia & Sebastian’s theme, a pretty, jazzy, but decidedly somber piano solo that comments on the pain of separation, made more poignant by the happiness of those around you. The best is saved for last, however, in the “Epilogue,” a charming 7-minute sequence that takes a journey round all the score’s main themes, from Mia & Sebastian’s theme to the Hollywood theme, Sebastian’s theme, and a buoyant jazz version of Mia’s theme. The choral waltz-time variation of Mia’s theme that begins at 4:33 is magical and nostalgic in the best possible way, and the way it segues into the equally lush “Credits” is just sublime.
As you can probably tell, I think La La Land is a masterpiece; it slapped a big, stupid grin on my face from the opening bars of the opening track, and kept it there throughout its entire running time. It’s clearly one of the best scores of 2016, and is an absolute shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Other than the musical and lyrical excellence I have already discussed, the other thing that really impressed me was the fine line that Justin Hurwitz was able to tread here; one step to the right and he’s too deep in a sort of schmaltzy pastiche that sounds too insincere, one step to the left and he hasn’t properly captured the magical tone that director Chazelle wanted to maintain. Thankfully, Hurwitz’s music is right down the middle, paying loving homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of the past, while maintaining a contemporary sensibility of self-conscious imperfection that allows Mia and Sebastian to be relatable and real.
Whether this will go down in the pantheon of great Hollywood musicals remains to be seen; perhaps the fact that, unlike the musicals of the 40s and 50s, La La Land is an intentional throwback to a bygone era as opposed to a reflection of the prevailing musical taste of the audience will go against it. Whatever the case may be, I am personally overjoyed at the fact that a film like this, with its lack of pretention and wholly positive outlook on life, can resonate with critics and audiences so strongly, considering where we are as a society right now. Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul’s contributions to that cannot be understated, and I have a feeling that with this score we may be witnessing the beginnings of a truly great film music career.
Buy the La La Land soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
- Another Day of Sun (written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, performed by the Cast of La La Land) (3:48)
- Someone in the Crowd (written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, performed by Emma Stone, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe) (4:19)
- Mia & Sebastian’s Theme (1:38)
- A Lovely Night (written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) (3:56)
- Herman’s Habit (1:51)
- City of Stars (written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, performed by Ryan Gosling) (1:51)
- Planetarium (4:17)
- Summer Montage/Madeline (2:04)
- City of Stars (written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) (2:29)
- Start a Fire (written by John Legend, Justin Hurwitz, Marius De Vries, and Angelique Cinelu, performed by John Legend) (3:12)
- Engagement Party (1:27)
- Audition (The Fools Who Dream) (written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, performed by Emma Stone) (3:48)
- Epilogue (7:39)
- The End (0:46)
- City of Stars (Humming) (2:42)
- SCORE ALBUM
- Mia Gets Home (0:25)
- Bathroom Mirror/You’re Coming Right? (1:22)
- Classic Rope-a-Dope (0:45)
- Mia & Sebastian’s Theme (1:36)
- Stroll up the Hill (0:48)
- There the Whole Time/Twirl (0:44)
- Bogart & Bergman (2:11)
- Mia Hates Jazz (1:10)
- Herman’s Habit (1:51)
- Rialto at Ten (1:39)
- Rialto (0:28)
- Mia & Sebastian’s Theme (Late for the Date) (1:29)
- Planetarium (4:19)
- Holy Hell (0:41)
- Summer Montage/Madeline (2:04)
- It Pays (2:11)
- Chicken on a Stick (1:39)
- City of Stars/May Finally Come True (feat. Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone) (4:17)
- Chinatown (1:22)
- Surprise (1:30)
- Boise (1:13)
- Missed the Play (0:36)
- It’s Over/Engagement Party (1:34)
- The House in Front of the Library (0:30)
- You Love Jazz Now (0:50)
- Cincinnati (2:06)
- Epilogue (7:38)
- The End (0:46)
- Credits (3:39)
- Mia & Sebastian’s Theme (Celesta) (1:25)
Running Time: 45 minutes 55 seconds (Soundtrack Album)
Running Time: 53 minutes 06 seconds (Score Album)
Interscope Records (2016)
Music composed by Justin Hurwitz. Conducted by Tim Davies. Orchestrations by Justin Hurwitz. Featured musical soloists Randy Kerber, Johnny Britt and Wade Culbreath. Recorded and mixed by Nick Baxter. Edited by Jason Ruder. Album produced by Justin Hurwitz and Marius De Vreis.