New Music,

La La Land music: How the soundtrack gives you wings

February 01, 2017

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Summary

No doubt everyone has heard of the new musical called La La Land. Scoring a mind-boggling 7 Golden Globes and 14 Oscar nominations, this contemporary love letter to old Hollywood musicals is among the top performing movies of all time.

This is totally unexpected because we were all starting to think that musicals are a thing of the past. But the music of this movie literally takes you to La La Land, where you grow wings to dream and pursue ideals.

But, not everyone felt this way about La La Land. As soon as any successful movie hits a critical level of mass-approval, you can literally start the whiplash countdown. It awakens a certain type of cultural journalism which feels like it needs to deconstruct any successful enjoyable work for everything it didn’t do.

In this episode, you’ll be introduced to the controversy surrounding the movie, who does Sebastian, played by Gosling, represent, and you’ll be introduced to the soundtrack composed by Justin Hurwitz.

 

Links

John Caramanica NYT

Justin Hurwitz exclusive with Variety

Monogla Dargis, writing for the NYT 

 

Transcript

No doubt everyone has heard of the new musical called La La Land. Scoring a mind-boggling 7 Golden Globes and 14 Oscar nominations, this contemporary love letter to old Hollywood musicals is among the top performing movies of all time, like Titanic.

But this is totally unexpected because we were all starting to think that musicals are a thing of the past. Lionsgate took a leap of faith on director Damien Chazelle’s project, and their gamble is now paying off handsomely, already $200million in the global box office. 

I was first introduced to the movie by listening to the soundtrack. And like for many others, there was instant chemistry. The music literally takes you to La La Land, where you grow wings to dream and pursue ideals.

But, not everyone felt this way about La La Land. As soon as any successful movie hits a critical level of mass-approval, you can literally start the whiplash countdown. It awakens a certain type of cultural journalism which feels like it needs to deconstruct any successful enjoyable work for everything it didn’t do. Even SNL pitched in with a comical skit.

The movie is dull, Gosling and Stone are bad singers and dancers, it doesn’t have enough black people in it, Stone’s character is bad, Gosling’s character is bad, John Legend’s character is bad.

Jon Carmanica, writing for the NYT basically said that the movie was racist because Ryan Gosling is white and he’s trying to save “a genre created by black people”.

Really?! This is why racism is still an issue. It’s because of articles like this.

But, I deter. There is also an interesting debate around whether or not La La Land accurately depicts jazz.

Writing for Vulture, Seve Chambers says that La La Land is clueless about what’s actually happening in Jazz, because Gosling’s character represents a jazz purist, which, according to chambers is a bad thing because it’s narrow-minded and non-experimental. He goes on, and even criticizes the director, Chazelle, for the movie’s ideological snobbery and concludes that it’s unfortunate that such a conservative vision of jazz is taken to a global audience.

Really? The point of the movie is not to offer an opinion on the evolution of jazz. The movie is about artists and dreamers looking to achieve their ambitions among the most difficult career pursuits: like acting and music. It’s not about race, it’s not about the nuances of jazz. Can we just enjoy a good movie!?

So, do people actually hate “La La Land,” or has it simply committed the dreadful sin of becoming “too popular?” But, this is the logic of journalistic snobbery: Any creative work getting near-universal praise becomes a magnet for a fresh ‘take’ from online commentators or smart ‘rethinking’ by serious critics and scholars.

Anyways, back to the music: In La La Land, who does Sebastian, played by Gosling, represent? Is the voice of Sebastian the voice of many jazz musicians today?

As with most musical genres, it’s not that simple. Sebastian represents a jazz purist, which is a rather vague notion, and the movie doesn’t exactly define it for us. Possibly, Sebastian resembles the neo-bop school of jazz artists, who bemoan the addition of rock and hip-hop into the genre. They tend to prefer jazz the way it was prior to 1965 and would not accept any kind of jazz fusion or use of electronic instruments.

In this case, many jazz musicians today are far more optimistic and willing to experiment with the genre. Take for example Spalding, Kamazi Washington, or even Snarky Puppy.

Even the most iconic figures of jazz, like Miles Davis, in his own time, was someone who experimented with new ideas. But the movie is not about that. The movie depicts a young passionate musician, who, despite his snobbish tendencies, believes that a certain form of jazz should be preserved. Can you judge him and say that he’s wrong? Can you say that the movie is clueless about jazz if they’re simply depicting a jazz purist?   

Wherever you land in these debates, fortunately, there’s something most do agree on. The movie soundtrack written by Justin Hurwitz is delicious. I mean it is tasteful, colorful, and leaves you satisfied but craving more.

But perhaps you’re not into musicals and you just don’t get, why this strange type of film feels the need to interject singing into an otherwise perfectly good script? I understand it would be awkward if we were having a conversation and I randomly started to sing.

But in a musicals singing is used to express a certain internal feeling, passion, or sensation which you simply cannot articulate using words. You have to imagine that the movie is paused, and the actors are taking a moment to fill you in on what they’re feeling.

Take for example the scene from “Singing in the Rain”, when Gene Kelly wants to finally confess his love for Debbie Reynolds. Instead of simply saying “yes, I love you”, he creates the right context and sings “You were meant for me

Music is the language of our emotions, if you’re curious to know more about how this works, check out the podcast called “How does music make me feel things?”

Now, allow me to briefly introduce you to the music of La La Land.

Take for example the opening number, Another Day of Sun, which literally takes you by surprise being staged on the clogged 110 freeway in LA. This ear-candy tune will make even a paraplegic dance. And speaking of dancing and musicals, there was an interesting observation in a recent NYT article, which basically says that the American musical fell out of favor for many reasons, one of which includes the fact that we stopped dancing, except at clubs and parties, and the musicals grew grim, and then grimmer.

For the most part, I tend to agree. Dancing has become narrow and mostly dirty. But La La Land let’s you dance once again, even when you’re stuck traffic. The fast-paced optimistic LA lifestyle is eloquently articulated by this giant 95-piece orchestral arrangement.

In an exclusive interview for Variety, here’s what the film composer, Justin Hurwitz said about this song:

It’s a complicated song because ostensibly, it’s so happy, it’s another day of sun, L.A. is amazing, but you hear about all of these struggles and you realize what a dark and difficult place Los Angeles can be. So I was trying to get that across in the music. It’s a very fast song and as a whole it’s in a major key, but it dips into minor quite a bit and it’s more bittersweet than it may seem on its face. And then I spent a lot of time arranging all the very, very dense background vocals.

Another one of my favorites is called A Lovely Night, which is an important number because it’s the first time Sebastian and Mia interact musically. In this piece, the two are trying to deny the fact that they’re obviously falling for one another, and the music eloquently expresses what they’re hiding from each other. Until they simply can’t resist, and start to dance—it’s simply brilliant. The song begins with a somber and regretful theme, but gradually the orchestration summons them to let loose, and express what they really feel.

Hurwitz explains it like this, “A lot of the music up to this point has been kind of reserved and more introspective and this song is just more manic. When you’re falling in love, crazy chemical things are happening, and the music is trying to reflect how they’re emotionally feeding off of each other.”

City of Stars is appropriately the central theme in this musical. Its melancholy contour accurately depicts the many shattered pursuits of artists and dreamers. But at the same time, the tone is optimistic and does not leave the listener without hope.

BTW: After watching the movie, I was shocked to find out that Gosling was actually playing the piano in the film. Meaning it wasn’t some stunt-double.And even more, John Legend also had to learn how to play the guitar to pull off his role 🙂

Here is how Hurwitz talked about the writing for this piece:

I can’t really think of any music I was listening to at the time, that I was thinking of, when I was writing it. I was just composing it from an emotional place and thinking about the tone. I would say the tone is hopeful, but melancholy at the same time. And it kind of goes back-and-forth between cadencing in major and cadencing in minor, because I think that’s kind of what the song is about. You have these great moments and then you have these less great moments in life and in Los Angeles and we see it happen in the story.

Audition

Another popular tune in this musical is entitled: “AUDITION (THE FOOLS WHO DREAM)”, and it arrives as final, full number in the film at a crucial time for Mia, when she is finding herself at yet another audition, longing for a chance to fulfill her artistic dream. It’s a crucial storytelling moment that begins with her personal story and blossoms into a sweeping, romantically orchestrated ballad as Mia sings about the aunt who inspired her to be a dreamer.

The melodies that Justin Hurwitz composed for “La La Land” have a luscious ear-worm tastiness, which leaves you satisfied but longing for more.

Undoubtedly, a major contributing factor for why the music of La La Land worked so well, is because the director, Chazelle, and film composer, Justin Hurwitz, have been close friends, were Harvard roommates, at one point, even played in a band together. Many don’t know this, but it took them 6 years to write the script and music for La La Land.

Honestly, I’m thrilled that this movie was such a success, and I hope Hollywood will take the hint and produce more beautiful musicals like La La Land.

Monogla Dargis, writing for the NYT said this,

Contemporary American movies could use more s’wonderful, more music and dance, and way, way more surrealism. They’re too dull, too ordinary and too straight, whether they’re mired in superhero clichés or remodeled kitchen-sink realism. One of the transformative pleasures of musicals is that even at their most choreographed, they break from conformity, the dos and don’ts of a regimented life, suggesting the possibility that everyone can move to her own beat.

 

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