Part of the mastery of Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is its timing. When Sebastian takes Mia — played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, respectively — to a jazz club after she declares her hatred for the genre, there’s a fascinating scene where Sebastian narrates the excitement of the art while the piece, “Herman’s Habit,” perfectly directs his expressions near the tail end. A trumpet blares as he moves his fists together, while the tempo speeds up as he raises his arms. It’s seamless and riveting to watch, as the music and the film play off one another. Each are granted equal respect.
A friend of mine aptly described “La La Land” as a film by someone who purely, absolutely loves film. It’s tone is starry-eyed and stunned, even at its most devastating.
The same should be said of the soundtrack and the score. While Chazelle has garnered the majority of the limelight, Justin Hurwitz, who composed the music for Chazelle’s two previous projects, deserves similar recognition here. He has produced one of the most inventive, yet nostalgic soundtracks of the last decade.
In a recent reddit Q&A, Hurwitz answered questions about the genealogy of his work — the inspirations he holds closest. He praised John Williams (“Star Wars,” “Jaws”), Michel Legrand (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) and Nino Rota (“The Godfather”), some of the most legendary names in film score composition. These are artists who know that a scene might blow by, but a score, and a good one at that, will stick with you forever. Anyone who’s heard the piercing violins of “Pyscho,” the atmospheric, trumpeting gloom of “Chinatown” or the joyful tune of “Singin’ in the Rain” will immediately recognize the score, even if some finer plot details get lost along the way.
But Hurwitz also traces his development to classical compositions of the 19th and 20th centuries, something that sets the “La La Land” soundtrack apart. Like the narrative of the film, he weaves in music from some earlier traditions, most notably the solo piano nocturne. The soundtrack recalls iconic pieces in the form, like John Field’s "Nocturne No. 2 in C Minor," and even more directly the titan of the nocturne, Frédéric Chopin. The nearly formless ache of his “Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2” and his gloriously sad “Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2” both feel at the front of mind, and we can thank those traditions for inspiring the centerpiece of this soundtrack, “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme.” It drives both the film and the score, and it transcends the typical film-soundtrack relationship. Think of the way “As Time Goes By” drives “Casablanca,” or how Chopin’s “Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor” dominates “The Pianist.” Five years past, the opening chords of “Theme” pull Mia right back to a past life, clear as a dream. In twenty, whether we’re living in a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland or within uncanny white picket fences, I’ll hear those chords and be drawn right back to the theatre I first heard them in. There’s an astounding memory in melody, one that grips the mind in inexplicable ways.
It’s an interesting choice for Hurwitz to use this theme to signal romance. Particularly in the 21st century, love songs have become synonymous with upbeat, joyful expressions. It’s an exuberant hook, or a sweet croon. This theme, and the inspiration it draws from, is far from that — its F-Sharp minor key isn’t necessarily a happy one. That slower, sadder representation of love hints at something that earlier love songs have long done, associating love with pain, sadness and loss. Look at one of the most popular love songs ever: Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Love in this instance is a longing, an ache, rather than a spritely dance. With this association, Hurwitz has grounded the “La La Land” soundtrack in the past. This is not your average musical.
His genius, though, is when he can weave these tradition-heavy pieces in with his more modern inspirations, and nowhere is that better represented than in the film’s effective penultimate track, “Epilogue.” It’s the emotional core of “La La Land,” and it stands as a towering work of modern film composition, never mind that it accompanies one of the most powerful third acts of the last decade. Gliding from the smooth nocturne of “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” into the latter-section of “Planetarium,” bouncing into the trumpets of “Another Day Of Sun,” whirling to a heavenly choir and finally landed at a transition from “City of Stars” back to the beginning chords of “Theme,” it is modern in the most modern sense. There’s a spiral of decades and centuries, of traditional jazz, classical piano, musical show-tunes and John William’s inspired scoring, and it fits together wonderfully.
A common complaint about the film is that its main voices, Stone and Gosling, are not the most awe-inspiring singers. On tracks like “City of Stars” Gosling can be slightly uninteresting, though Stone fares better, particularly on the arresting “Audition” and in the musical back-and-forth of “A Lovely Night.” But while the actors are the film’s foreground, they’re more like contributing voices in a choir on the soundtrack. The musical composition here is impressive to the point that the singing feels minor, both in key and function. It’s immediately approachable and instantly escapist.
“La La Land” is fantasy, yes, but a necessary one.