The Music of ‘La La Land’

la la land

I’m a fan of musicals. In fact, fan might not be the right word, I’m a voracious consumer. It would be difficult for me to name a musical film I haven’t seen (I even sat through a polish musical about murderous mermaids at last years MIFF and loved every creepy second of it) and when you add to that my not-so-secret love of musical theatre, I start to head into obsessive fanatic territory.

It will surprise no one that I was eagerly awaiting the release of 2016’s La La Land. Damien Chazelle, the films director, captured my imagination with his previous film, 2015’s Whiplash, and I was first in line on Boxing Day to see for myself what he was going to do with my favourite genre.

Immediately I was struck by the impact of the films soundtrack, and my physical response to the film’s score. Rarely have I found that a films soundtrack has no impact on my experience with a film, even more rare is it that a films soundtrack can be so essential to the viewing of the film that it one would simply fail to exist with any real relevance without the other. I was not surprised to learn that Chazelle and the composer of the films score, Justin Hurwitz had not only worked together previously on Whiplash, but that they had both attended university together and had long been working together to get La La Land made. When watching the film, it becomes plain that the movie and music play off of each other. Music has been written with scenes in mind and scenes have clearly been choreographed and directed with the score in mind.

I found the most impactful moment in the soundtrack to be “Epilogue” This is the moment in the film where the two central characters see each other again after a long period of absence, where both of them have managed to achieve their dreams albeit apart. The song has no lyrics at all and (in one of a number of nods to classic movie musicals that have preceded it) is in fact essentially an overture in reverse. The song re-uses elements of the score the audience is already familiar with in order to create a romanticised look for the audience at what might have been for the characters had they been determined to stay together. Full of celebratory orchestral builds and choir vocals, the audience is primed to expect a traditional happy ending, however the song finally slows and sombrely returns to a sparse version of the tune that was played when the characters first met. Even without the visuals of the film this song is completely characteristic of the trajectory of the character’s relationship and I believe that it stands alone as a piece of music capable of inflicting emotions on an audience without lyrically or visually directing the audience to feel a certain way or believe in any particular thing.

Physically for me, the music of the film led me on a corresponding journey with its characters, my heart swelled with joy in the early numbers, the innocence of hope and the optimism of new love shine through in the music, often without the need for lyrical explanation. Similarly, toward the end of the film I was left utterly heartbroken (I ugly cried for longer than I should have) but I was also eerily at peace with the trajectory of the character’s lives. I wasn’t sad because I didn’t get a traditional happily ever after – I was sad because I was immediately able to draw parallels between my own dreams and the story of Sebastian and Mia’s dreams. I understand all too well that some sacrifices need to be made in order to achieve success. The arc of the story felt (almost too) real to me and the tonal shift in the films score must take partial responsibility for my capacity to accept such an ‘un-Hollywood’ style finale.

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