So as a working pianist and musician (and a former film journalist) I was delighted to get an invite to a preview screening of La-La Land. I had been anticipating this movie for months, since reading previews in the trade press and hearing about it from fellow musicians.
It’s every bit as good as I had hoped. La-La Land is modern but vintage, fresh but knowingly cynical, a homage to so many past musicals for those in the know, but a wonderful two hours of musical sunshine to those who come new to the genre. Packed with sizzling dialogue and realistic singing performances from the two main leads, it will play to the whole family.
It’s the story of an auditioning actress who spends most of her time working as a barista, who meets, through a series of half-chances, a working pianist who would prefer to be an artist in his own right. Mia and Sebastian flip fingers on the freeway, argue, fall in love, and then get ripped apart as their respective careers take off, leaving them precious little time to spend with one another. It’s an affectionate tip of the hat to the fine movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a movie I first saw 20 years ago and have watched many times since – delightful to see a store called Parapluies opposite Mia’s coffee shop midway through the film.
La-La Land has a small cast, but there are many other stars of Damien Chazelle’s movie. The music is the biggest – Chazelle has says he will only ever work with composer Justin Hurwitz, and it’s not difficult to see why. A whole gamut of styles and genres find their way into Chazelle’s movie, from his beloved jazz to a splendid remix of A-Ha; but the themes that weave through the film are leitmotivs of emotions, from Another Day of Sun to City of Stars. It’s all superbly recorded and literally leaps out of the screen at you, performed by an orchestra of an epic size (even the cor anglais gets a look-in). Listen to Planetarium and tell me why others don’t write waltzes like this any more. It’s all available to order here.
Another main player is the city of LA. From the shimmering city lights viewed from a hillside overlooking the city, to a spectacular scene at the Griffith Observatory and firecracker dialogue on a studio backlot, it’s easy to imagine coming home from this movie and booking your holiday straight away.
So let’s have a more detailed look at all the main musical moments in the Justin Hurwitz’s soundtrack:
- City of Stars – starts with a sombre piano G minor ostinato, and Ryan Gosling croons the opening. Emma Stone’s voice replies, its tone much lighter and breathy. After 90 seconds, the track goes more uptempo and the voices duet over a swung piano accompaniment, before the song finishes in the same wistful way it began.
- A Lovely Night – another duet that starts with Gosling, followed by a more upbeat response from Stone. Lavishly orchestrated, with sweeping strings and woodwind interjections, the track slowly builds, to a mid-tempo dance number which is the movie’s biggest homage to Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Wonderfully recorded, with the brass in the background and not overmic’d like so many recent big band sounds of the last 20 years.
- Another Day of Sun – opens the movie, amid a packed-solid LA freeway, as the drivers of each of the cars emerge from their own musical bubbles (which we experience). I challenge you not to shed a tear at 1:02. Performed by a 40-strong choir and a 95-piece or full 95-piece orchestra – just an explosion of happiness, a single shot over 6 minutes, filmed on a real freeway with the city of angels in the background.
- Someone in the Crowd – Echoes of Chicago here, performed by Emma Stone, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe. The big build at the end deserves to be replicated on the West End stage.
I’ve ordered the soundtrack. I may just wear out the CD.
Simon Jordan is a working pianist and violinist with many decades of experience. Previously a film reviewer for Channel Four and a producer for BBC Radio 2, 3 and 4, he now freelances as a producer and as a musician, playing for weddings, parties and events across the UK and beyond.