An introduction to La La Land
October 13 2021, by Saskia Frayling
First premiering at the Venice Film Festival in August 2016, La La Land is a film with music at its core. Composed by Justin Hurwitz, the film features a variety of different music genres, primarily mixing popular song music, with contemporary pop and jazz. According to Justin Hurwitz, “Our challenge was to make a movie that didn’t feel old-fashioned or a soundtrack, songs, or score that wouldn’t sound like they actually could have been in some of those older movies. How can we make it new, make it modern?”. Working with the director, Damien Chazelle, they created a retro musical with skillful cinematography. The plot follows Ryan Gosling as a jazz musician and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress, as they follow their ambitions which eventually lead to the downfall of their relationship. In addition to the music, the atmosphere of the film is created with the help of dance and colours, which are used alongside the music as a reflection of the various moods and aspects of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship.
The opening number, “Another Day of Sun” begins with piano chords introduced among the sounds of cars radios and horns, before a female voice enters humming along to the piano. From this point the music gradually builds, with jazz rhythms being introduced with the help of percussion, which remain prominent throughout the rest of the film. More voices enter, until there is a full chorus which is accompanied by fast-paced choreography. The catchy rhythms continue to an instrumental section which features a wide variety of instruments, including some solo melodic phrases. With the upbeat rhythms, range of instrumentation, choreography, and use of bright primary colours, this number provides a memorable opening to the film, with its bold and celebratory atmosphere. The use of mostly primary colours in both “Another Day of Sun”, and the second number “Someone in the Crowd”, seem to imply a sense of optimistic naivety in regard to the world of Hollywood, in comparison to scenes later on in the film. Musically, “Someone in the Crowd” is another upbeat number, with a continuation of the jazzy rhythms, and the addition of a walking bass line. In contrast to the first number, “Someone in the Crowd” has a contrasting slow section in which there is a switch from the large orchestral accompaniment to a more simple piano accompaniment. This change allows for an insight into Mia’s thoughts, a break from the frantic party atmosphere which is prominent throughout the majority of the song. From this section the music does however build again, with the beat slowly returning at an increasing tempo before a short silence which leads back to the full orchestral accompaniment and chorus. Mia and Sebastian’s relationship only begins to form in “A Lovely Night”, however it is foreshadowed by “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” which is played by Sebastian as a background pianist, and which Mia hears. Its lyrical melody becomes key to the theme of love throughout the film, with it being the reason Mia is drawn into the restaurant in the first place. Initially being played as a slow soft piano piece, it develops by changes in tempo, dynamics, and variations on the melody line. This leads to an improvisatory section, in which Sebastian shows off scalic passages and runs. “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” is a key example of the importance of music throughout the film, as it is used to amplify the varying aspects of their relationship, first being heard when they meet, and for the last time in the epilogue towards the end of the film.
“A Lovely Night” shows the formation of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship, as they sing and dance after a party. It begins with an ascending scalic piano passage, which leads to Sebastian and then Mia singing. The instrumental accompaniment develops from piano to the addition of instruments such as horns, and percussion. With this greater range of instrumentation, the song builds, at an increased tempo, with tap dancing which is synced to the bass line. The tap dancing effectively builds the atmosphere of the song, allowing for a sense of playfulness, which matches the rhythms perfectly.
Another song which is key in the film is “City of Stars”. It is heard twice, first early on in the film on a pier, and later as a duet with Mia when they are living together. “It has that hopeful, optimistic sweetness but also a sadness”, Justin Hurwitz says, “I love how it addressed both the relationship and the professional ambition and for that reason it felt like the other heart of the movie, along with the main love theme”. Beginning with just four notes on the piano, the song consists of a soft piano accompaniment which accompanies Sebastian and Mia when she joins in. With an AABA structure, the song consists of a main theme, and contrasting section. The main theme is slow and in a minor key, and the B section contrasts with a bright major key, at a faster tempo. Once again, the music is a way to expose Mia and Sebastian’s feelings regarding love and ambition.
Overall, I think that the music is at La La Land’s core, working with the cinematography and choreography to create the various atmosphere’s essential to the plot. Aside from this, the songs allow for an insight to Mia and Sebastian’s emotions, in a way that words are not able to.
Saskia Frayling, U6
- La La Land – you’ll leave with a tear in your eye and a song in your heart (The Telegraph)
- La La Land – why the critics have turned (The Guardian)
- The empty exertions of La La Land (The New Yorker)
- Love La La Land? Hate it? So do we (New York Times)