La La Land : A Musical Appreciation

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Another Day in the Sun – Opening freeway scene

I hate musicals. The words ‘ooooh, let’s pop on Singing in the Rain’ or ‘you know what I fancy? Mamma bloody Mia!’ have never, ever come out of my mouth, and long may that continue. Yet, with this knowledge of my own mind and character at 27 years of age, I didn’t give any of those preconceptions a second thought when I agreed to go and watch La La Land. I’d seen the Oscar hype. It’s got Ryan Gosling in it. It must be good, right?  Ignoring the promo poster has Gosling and Emma Stone, mid embrace in what clearly is the mid throws of a dance, I thought, let’s give this a whirl, it’ll be a blast. So I sat down in Fulham Broadway Vue with nearly a tenners worth of sweets, and we’re off. The first scene starts nicely enough: a widescreen view of a gridlocked LA freeway, pale blue skies with barely a whip of cloud, bright, bright sunshine, baking tarmac, downtown off in the distance, very clearly present day. You’re transported right into the searing heat of LA, pure escapism from the off. Little heart eye emoji right there. I start to relax into my seat, picking out a strawberry bootlace and BAM! Some bird gets out of her car and starts singing. Singing, as if it’s a completely normal thing to do in a traffic jam. Then a few more berks get out to join in, as if the only way to combat a nutter singing in a traffic jam is to join in. And that’s it, right from the off. Berks singing all over the shop as if this is the most normal thing in the world. And then there you are in the cinema, being brought up to speed very quickly that this is a shitting musical, and you still have about two hours left of it. Christ.

But you know what, I bloody loved it.

I know what you’re thinking. Why should I give two shits about some bloke-who-doesn’t-think-he-likes-musicals-but-enjoyed-this-one’s review of a film that has had, at last count, 14 Oscar nominations, won every Golden Globe it was up for (7) not to mention countless further gongs from the Screen Actors Guild and critics Choice Awards. Don’t worry about any of them: Industry experts. Critics. Nor the 294m dollars in Box Office takings to date. No. Forget about all of that. Instead, read Josh’s shitty little blog that nobody reads which he only even writes once every few years, because he reckons it was alright!


When you’ve got Jazz club at 6 and hearts to break at 7. 

Anyway… I was trying to rack my brains as to why I’d enjoyed this film so much. Or at least why I became so emotionally invested in it. What was it? The dancing? Not a chance, although it was all pretty harmless in the end. Gosling’s tweed suit game? Possibly. Gosling’s retro bowling shirt game? Better still. The narrative? Not the most complicated, even with the ending. No, it wasn’t until I listened back to the film’s soundtrack, that it all clicked and fell into place. Quite how many Oscars La La Land picks up this weekend remains to be seen, but none will be more deserving than Justin Hurwitz’s dead cert for Best Original Score.

Hurwitz, a classically trained pianist, turned to Jazz at Harvard, where he met Damien Chazelle (Director, La La Land) and became his roommate – Chazelle himself was a Jazz drummer, and they got together years later to collaborate on Whiplash, with Chazelle as Director and Hurwitz with the score.


Justin Hurwitz – Composer, La La Land score

We were discussing how good La La Land was at dinner, and I started to bang on about how the music made it. My brother suggested that it was the ‘same song that played throughout,’ and he meant City of Stars – whilst he’s technically wrong, he is on the right track. The repetition of key melodic ideas is key to La La Land’s genius. These ideas are all introduced within the first hour of the film (except for Mia’s audition song), and are all reasonably simple melodies that are catchy enough when played on their own. But the reason you’re probably humming any one of those melodies is due to their expert repetition and the way they weave in and out of major emotional landmarks in the film.

Take the film’s opener, Another Day of Sun, which to paraphrase Alan Partridge, had me by the jaffers from the off. It starts big, bright and bold, in G Major, with an irresistibly catchy note sequence of three ascending notes each two notes apart, building around the ascending chord pattern of C, D, then up to E minor and down to B minor. Simple enough.  Then take Someone in the Crowd, where we’re first properly (musically) introduced to Mia. This starts in C Major and in a similarly brash and sightly corny, with a similarly full production manner. This song takes a melancholic turn half way through and we’re introduced to another ascending melody, around the chord progression of Fmaj7, G7, Cmaj7, Am7. Both songs similar ascending note patterns here at differing tempos, but they’re so catchy because whilst the notes climb up with that ascending chord progression, a minor chord gets chucked in half way – on the 3rd chord for Another Day of Sun and the 4th chord for Someone in the Crowd. That’s what makes them sound alike. That’s music right there. This lad doesn’t mess about.

The way these melodies are introduced and re-introduced, either as part of huge orchestral pieces and then isolated on their own (or vice versa) is more akin to the structure of a classic symphony than a film/musical soundtrack. You have an exposition at the beginning introducing the main melodic themes (Another Day of Sun, Someone in the Crowd, Mia and Sebastian’s Theme, A Lovely Night & City of Stars) which are then brought back later on at various points and rounded up with a coda at the end. Hurwitz notes himself the classical influences on his work – “Beethoven and Chopin and Bach and Schubert and the repertoire I played influenced me as a composer for sure.”

Melodies that appear in the film’s first hour are weaved back in later, but in different contexts, inviting different meanings. The aforementioned ascending note pattern from Someone in the Crowd is reflective and melancholic, sure, but it’s one part of an ultimately happy, upbeat and hopeful song. That melody is then repeated at the Engagement Party for Sebastian’s sister, where Sebastian plays the ascending melody on it’s own as a separate piece, shortly after his separation from Mia after their handbags where he made her dinner but she told him Jazz is shit, or something like that.* It’s a beautiful piece of music when played so bare, and completely different when played in a different context.

*I’m writing all of this from memory. Some of the detail might be wrong. 


A Lovely Night – the film’s lead promotional image

Mia and Sebastian’s tune – the rogue number Sebastian plays on the piano that makes Mia stop in her tracks but also makes everyone’s favourite Jazz nutter J.K Simmons fire his sorry ass for going off repertoire –  is thoughtful, broody, a little bit showy, but simple too, probably like him. Yet in the Planetarium scene, it reappears, this time fully orchestral, with the melody played between a clarinet and an oboe. Their relationship is fully realised in the orchestral version of this tune, which I got from the music, but just incase the deaf buggers in the audience didn’t, Chazelle takes the bizarre step of pausing gravity and hoiking Seb and Mia into the air in one of the film’s more ridiculous moments. That melody comes back again at the end during the film’s coda, the Epilogue, the (ultimately heartbreaking) montage of what could’ve been for Seb and Mia. When he sits down at the piano with Mia’s eyes burning a hole in the back of his head, you already know what he’s going to play. We hear four versions of that melody during the ending: Played at the start as Gosling sits at the piano, similar to how it was introduced at the beginning of the film;  then evolving into a fully orchestral piece as we go into the montage, similar to how it builds in the Planetarium scene; orchestrally again half way through, but with added choir; and finally it closes the sequence with Gosling sat haunched over the piano, but this time the notes of the melody are played slower, bare and in an almost haunting manner, to give the perfect accompaniment for the film’s denouement, and the audience’s realisation that this relationship didn’t last.


Mia at the Epilogue

City of Stars is the film’s most recognisable song, and along with Mia’s Audition (the Fools Who Dream), up for an Oscar for Best Original Song. It begins as a piano & vocal number early on in the film, and being in the key of E minor shows a slight departure from the major keys of the previous songs in the film, with a very simple chord progression of Am, D7 and Em to begin with. The repetition here is less subtle. As well as featuring in the Epilogue at the end of the film, City of Stars comes back half way through the film as a Mia and Seb duet in one of the film’s more defining scenes, at the height of their relationship – when introduced, the song doesn’t stray from the up and down melody with a few vocals over the top (bum bum bum, city of stars, are you sing just for me, bum bum bum etc), but when we hear it as a duet, it becomes a completely different song – a new staccato part comes in about half way through, not too dissimilar to what we hear half way through Someone in the Crowd, making the song already twice as good and showing us that Sebastian is ultimately better for having Mia sat beside him.


Oooh it’s John Legend!!


The only song from the film that stands out as an anomaly is the one Gosling plays on stage with John Legend, Start a Fire, but that has an important role all the same. Dramatic to begin with, it then explodes into this ridiculous poppy over-the-top affair that Seb doesn’t quite get, but for some reason we like (kinda like John Legend IRL, am I right?) Start a Fire serves to encapsulate Sebastian’s slide from troubled Jazz pianist with nothing but iron clad credentials serving as his compass, to sell out to make ends meet. It also serves as the musical tipping point where the balance of Seb and Mia’s relationship starts to go south. There’s no repetition of this song’s melodies later, so this really is a one off, but it strikes a balance between catchy and cringe. You want to hate it, but it’s actually really good. There’s a Buzzfeed article that argues whether we’re allowed to like this song in the context of the others.

‘That was a tricky song to write. It can’t be a bad song—but it also has to make us feel a little uncomfortable, because it’s not the music Sebastian should be playing. It’s not the music he dreamed about playing. And it’s not really music that belongs to our musical. It has to feel like an outlier.’ – Justin Hurwitz talking to GQ. 


Funny how the listening back to the La La Land soundtrack, the repetition of the key melodies, the interweaving of all the film’s brilliant music, is a really positive experience. You’re placed back into the film, into the arc of the story, yet the album plays as a collection of music from start to finish in it’s own right. You can picture the narrative of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship without having to see it – the joy in its inception, sadness at it never quite making it. Compare that listening experience then, with that of the Whiplash soundtrack, Chazelle and Hurwitz’s previous collaboration where they played the same roles of Director and Composer respectively. I recoiled as I had to listen back to the film’s two chief numbers: Whiplash and Caravan. I was back in the midst of Miles Teller’s pain, picturing J.K Simmon’s evil glare, but that’s entirely the point. We’re meant to feel that emotion with Whiplash – and we’re meant to feel that again when listening to the music. The music in La La Land is also attached to the same idea of emotion, just very different ones.

J.K Simmon’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar role in Whiplash

Back to the film’s coda : The Epilogue (as it’s named on the soundtrack). The masterpiece final montage, where this film turns from great into Oscar winning. Mia clocks eyes on a Sebastian she used to know and hasn’t seen for years, and as he catches her eye when onstage, he’s stopped in his tracks. As he sits down to the piano, he plays Mia and Sebastian’s theme exactly as it is played when she first sees him, which then takes us straight into a flashback-y type montage that begins with their first encounter. From there, their relationship as we’ve seen it throughout the film is played back to us as it happened, to the backing of the film’s key melodic ideas one by one – a coda that was imagined before anything else in the film.

“The first things I remember were the big set pieces of the movie,” Hurwitz recalls. “It’s gonna start with a big huge musical number on a freeway in a traffic jam. It’s gonna have this big balletic sequence in the Griffith Observatory Planetarium, and they’re gonna float into the sky. There’s gonna be this big fantasy in the end, where we kind of rewind the story, and we relive moments of the relationship set to music. I remember those big moments being pillars of the story.” Justin Hurwitz talking to Vice.

As Mia and Sebastian’s theme builds into an orchestral version, the pace then quickens into the melody of Another Day in the Sun, and we’re taken back to the bright eyed, bushy tailed hope and joy of the film’s beginning, as well as the beginning of their relationship. The tempo slows down slightly as we’re taken into the more melancholic melody from Someone in the Crowd, and then we slow right down again to hear Audition (Fools who Dream) back for the first time, which takes on a whole new level of complexity with a Jazz arrangement that develops into a flourishing trumpet solo. This acts as a break, as we’re taken back into the original Mia and Sebastian theme melody from the start – this is a fully orchestral version similar to the one we hear in the Planeterium scene earlier in the film, but with added choir arrangement that has a real grandeur to it. At this point in the montage we’re watching a Seb and Mia who have grown together, and we’re almost tricked into thinking that maybe they did end up together after all. That scene with her walking into the Jazz bar with another man was a rouse, they were together happily ever after until silence… and back down to the City of Stars melody played on a lone piano which then serves to be the final image of Seb’s what-could’ve-been vision for him and Mia.


A wry Gosling smile

The montage ends, and we cut back to a lone figure of Seb, hunched over the piano where he started, playing the original piano melody that first caught Mia’s attention, but now it’s played with a real emptiness. The bare bones of the notes ring out hollow as Mia watches on aghast, and we’re now left to realise the heartbreaking reality that the only thing they share is a memory. It’s not Sebastian sitting next to Mia after all, it’s someone else.

I’ll look a right tit if Hurwitz doesn’t get that Oscar now.


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