Films designed to make us genuinely happy appear to be something of a rare commodity in this era of gritty, self-serious blockbusters. Hence why the arrival of Whiplash director Damien Chazelle's musical comedy-drama La La Land is such a joy. A love story threaded around several show-stopping song and dance numbers, it explores the tender romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), a jazz pianist and aspiring actress, respectively. Initially drawn to one another like a moth to the flame, the two lovers are forced to confront the bittersweet heartache that comes with following one's dreams, and the impact this has on one's relationships and future happiness. A delightful homage not only to Hollywood classics like Singin' In the Rain but also Jacques Demy's masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the movie is a vibrantly designed extravaganza that carries viewers on a symphony of emotion. Stone and Gosling are superb, breaking out their vocal and dancing skills (Gosling even learned to play the piano in just three months) in order to sweep us away. Such a rich canvas clearly allows composer Justin Hurwitz to let rip with the kind of joyously memorable soundtrack denied to many composers nowadays; in stark contrast to their collaboration on the psychologically gruelling and suspenseful drumming drama Whiplash, Chazelle and Hurwitz here want nothing more than to play on our heartstrings.
The soundtrack has actually been graced with two separate releases: one featuring both the songs and snippets of Hurtwiz' underscore (the album reviewed here), and the other focusing on the score entirely. It's little surprise to learn that the barnstorming musical numbers are magnificent throwbacks to Busby Berkeley, Astaire and Rogers and any other number of musical pioneers. Beginning with the celebratory ensemble piece 'Another Day of Sun', accompanying the deliriously enjoyable, single shot opening sequence whereby people leap from their cars on a freeway to join in, the tone for the soundtrack is set: this is a musical story about love, dreams and aspirations in the modern-day City of Angels, as the lyrics by Pasek & Paul make clear ("Behind these hills I'm reaching for the heights, and chasing all the lights that shine").
After that overture, the sassy 'Someone in the Crowd' reaches for the brassy, big band ensemble sound as Stone's Mia and her flatmates nail the difficulty of finding that perfect someone. The spine-tingling segueway into hushed reverence midway through is the perfect example of Hurtwitz' dramatic intuition, taking us on a clearly defined journey from crescendo to diminuendo as the piece once more builds into a rousing climax for massed voices. Briefly reprising the tone of 'Another Day of Sun', it makes for a triumphant end. Hurtwitz' greatest triumph is his structural intelligence: each song occupies a distinct stage in the ongoing journey between Seb and Mia, as the utterly delightful 'A Lovely Night' makes clear with its rollicking jazz undercurrent and tap-dancing interlude. It's a piece giddy on romantic energy, accompanying the initial meet-cute flirting between our two star-crossed lovers who express a seeming disdain for one another in the lyrics, even though the attraction couldn't be more obvious ("This could never be... You're not the type for me... Oh what a waste of a lovely night").
From that initial endorphin rush to something far more mellow and deeply felt: 'City of Stars'. Interpreted first as a tentative vocal by Gosling before being picked up as a gorgeous, piano-laden duet between him and Stone, this is the moment where our central characters cement their bond, their relationship strengthened by the mutual desire to succeed in life (she to become an actress, he to own a jazz club). The song teases out what will eventually become the key theme in the film's narrative: that of staying true to one's hopes and the effect this has on relationships ("City of stars... are you shining just for me? City of stars... there's so much I can't see"). In-between is the funky, John Legend-penned and performed 'Start a Fire', a piece whose contemporary sound is deliberately at odds with the rest of the soundtrack, given how it ties into Seb's struggle with artistic compromise.
Stone's later solo 'Audition (Fools Who Dream)' features possibly the most complex vocals on the soundtrack, a reminder about the importance of following dreams and ambitions yet laced with a profound sense of awareness about the sadness this can bring ("Here's to the ones who dream... Foolish as they may seem... Here's to the hearts that ache... Here's to the mess we make"). Stone's vocal performance is outstanding, rippling with both positivity and melancholy in a manner that honours and updates the musical legends of old. The increasingly divergent path forged by Seb and Mia concludes in the wistful 'City of Stars (Humming)', a whisper of the romance that once was.
Sitting alongside the songs is Hurtwitz' score, another important character in tracing the emotional arc of the characters. It's all centrally based around the bittersweet piano piece 'Mia and Sebastian's Theme', first overheard by Stone's character as Gosling plays it in a jazz bar (prior to being fired). The music acts as the signifier of the initial flame that sparks between them, carried over into the sumptuously lovely 'Planetarium' waltz where the theme is embellished with darting woodwinds, celeste and pizzicato strings in the manner of classic silent film scores. When experienced in conjunction with Chazelle's breathtaking visuals, it's hard to imagine a better recent marriage between image and music in recent film history. By contrast, the rollicking 'Herman's Habit' and 'Summer Montage/Madeline' are designed to capture the feverish energy of love at its peak, breaking out the brushed snares, cymbals, jazz piano and trumpets to hearken back to George Gershwin and other masters. As with the songs, the initial sense of joy in the score eventually cools into a melancholy ember towards the end of the album, signified by the presence of the brief but impactful 'Engagement Party' that ushers in the powerful, climactic sense of compromise and thwarted love.
The seven-minute 'Epilogue' is quite overwhelmingly emotional, weaving together melodic interpretations of all of the songs to inform us of what Seb and Mia could have had together in a different life; Hurtwitz' command of the orchestra and choir, from grandiose romantic gestures to flighty, hesitant interludes, is nothing less than a symphony of life itself. The initial piano strains of Mia and Sebastian's theme in 'The End', coupled with gentle flutes, are devastatingly sad, before the choir and brass re-emerge as a triumphant force to bring everything to a close, a life-affirming reminder that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
It's almost impossible to rein in the superlatives when writing about La La Land, a full-blooded dramatic experience that interweaves exceptional songs and melodies to fill us with profound happiness. Yet the really impressive thing is it's not just style: although the technical mastery of the music is never in doubt, there is real storytelling intuition in terms of its construction, performing the key role of any film score and enhancing our emotional understanding of the film's characters.
Clothed in myriad influences yet centrally anchored in Seb and Mia's journey, from happiness to heartache to eventual, wistful reflection, it's that rarest of soundtracks capable of appealing to both cine-literate score fans and casual listeners alike. In terms of reviving the spirit of the Hollywood musical whilst standing as a magical experience in its own right, La La Land is a toe-tapping, life-enriching triumph, for which Justin Hurtwitz and Damien Chazelle deserve nothing but applause. The soundtrack album (15 tracks of songs and score) is available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and the score only album (37 tracks) is available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.