Justin Hurwitz — Soundtrack to La La Land

Interscope | modern-vinyl.com

A fine movie; a middling musical

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In my Superlative Albums I Wrote About in 2017 list, this album was awarded the Elphaba Thropp Umbrella for Most Extreme Contrast between Presentation and Content

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From the moment you hit play, La La Land seizes you by the retinas and refuses to let go. Every shot is saturated in colour: the indigo sunset skies of Los Angeles hang in the background, faces drenched in deepest blues and neon reds. Women are resplendent in bright jewel tones, often primaries; men striking in demure neutrals, often monochrome. A welcome reprieve from the endless slough of dull greys and browns that typify pretentions of realism. It is no surprise that La La Land cleaned up at the Oscars last February. Truthfully, it is a very pretty movie.

The curtain rises on an elaborately choreographed song-and-dance number that whizzes up and down a congested highway. The entire sequence is captured in a single extended shot, one of many, designed to impress, and the music throughout is vivid and vibrant and acrylic-smooth. But if you listen a little closer to the singing, cracks begin to appear. The syncopation is a little too sloppy, the cutoffs a little too untidy. Even the greenest of choristers knows to take care to synchronise with their neighbours, especially on those pesky sibilants and plosives. It’s a basic litmus test for choral rigour, and La La Land can’t squeak a pass. It stretches credibility that a multimillion-dollar love letter to Hollywood would skimp on vocal talent, leading me to the conclusion that the chorus was deliberately handicapped so as not to overshadow the leads — more on that later.

This is La La Land in a nutshell: a fine movie; a middling musical.

The whole thing harkens back to romantic movie-musicals of yore, an extended homage to the likes of Singing In the Rain and Funny Girl. Meet-cute. Contrived miscommunication. Reconciliation. A perfectly charming formula that has stood the test of time.

Emma Stone shines as the leading lady, sharp and charming as always, imbuing downtrodden aspiring actress Mia with warmth and wit, opposite Ryan Gosling as Sebastian the beleaguered jazz pianist, who displays a wide assortment of gormless stares and pouts. He has this annoyingly affected way of letting a lock of hair fall over his forehead which he probably thinks make him look rakishly, carelessly handsome but which had me wishing I could reach through my screen with a comb. He demonstrates the precariously narrow difference between charming and creepy — if you’re into some handsome stranger, as Mia is, anonymous flowers and surprise housecalls are flattering. But if not, like me, the same actions would have you calling the police.

Thus unendeared to the character of Seb, I initially missed the couple’s chemistry. Towards the beginning of their courtship, the two stroll along a road overlooking the city at sundown performing a duet about how they’re definitely not falling in love, and it took me longer than I care to admit to cotton on that I wasn’t supposed to be agreeing. I may also have been distracted by the gravelly scraping some Foley artist unaccountably laid over their tap-dance. Anyway, Stone brings nuance to a familiar story, while Gosling brings little more than a pretty face.

The filmmakers may have scooped a little too deeply from classic Hollywood — for a musical about jazz, La La Land is blindingly white and aggressively heterosexual. More qualified writers than I have already spilled considerable ink on the filmmakers’ decision to cast a white man as the figurehead of jazz while uncomfortably using black people as props and set dressing. Seb’s old school friend Keith (the only proper speaking role for a person of colour) waltzes into the picture partway through the first act to offer him a lucrative place as keyboardist in his weird modern jazz-fusion band, the subject of the aforementioned requisite miscommunication that drives a wedge between the happy couple. The trouble is that La La Land is so committed to playing out the same beats of the same romance that dominated cinema for decades that it completely overlooks a much more interesting movie hiding in plain sight.

Seb is passionately and ironically devoted to jazz music as it was. He clings to an image of a perfect past that never existed; the conservative to Keith’s libertarian embrace of the different and exciting for no reason beyond that he can. There is already friction aplenty between the two, and the potential for outright conflict hangs tantalisingly close.

The endgame writes itself: Seb can loosen up and let go of his obsession, while Keith can temper his iconoclastic tendencies with a little practicality. They learn from each other, and grow as people, as only a proper foil can, as opposed to Seb and Mia who latch together because the plot dictates that they must.

And now we come to the score, which is largely enjoyable. It leans heavily into the luxurious strings and strident brass that betoken romance and fancy, stretching from the boisterous to the shy to the delightful. But at points its imagination begins to run dry, repeating a figure or a form too regularly or too exactly. There must be an ebb and flow to these things, and too often the score sticks in neutral. Too often it sits back on line after line of the same length, falling into awkward overreliance on couplets rather than more natural quatrains, all square and blocky and clumsy. The opening sections of ‘City of Stars’ and ‘Another Day of Sun’ in particular sound as if someone sat at a piano, eased their fingers into a familiar one-three-five-eight, tinkled the ivories for a few minutes and called it a day. The couple’s motif is a counterpoint in search of a melody, a simple little loopy thing suited to support rather than shine. Perhaps that is the point. Mia and Seb just aren’t right for each other, and perhaps their theme — which makes several diegetic appearances — should reflect this. But circumstantial evidence suggests that this is not the correct interpretation.

This brings me to my major gripe with La La Land. All the brightness and polish in the world can’t disguise its leads’ thin, watery voices. Stone and Gosling wheeze and sigh their way through their songs at the only volume they are capable of producing. They cannot match the energy of the musicians. They are not singers, and the musical suffers for it.

Mia’s final audition is the centrepiece of the story, a referendum on her career and on her relationship. She sings about an intrepid aunt who inspired her to become an actress, her anecdote blossoming into an ode to the fools who dare to dream. The emotion is there on Stone’s face, but it can’t be heard. She struggles to dig deeper as the key modulates and the music flourishes around her, and it doesn’t help that the chorus consists of exactly the same figure repeated four times in a row. This is the emotional climax of the film. It has to land, and it doesn’t.

It’s no coincidence that all of the tunes acquit themselves much better as incidental music, set for jaunty ensembles of vibraphone chirps and plucks of upright bass rather than to lacklustre voice. Do splash out for the mega extra super complete version of the soundtrack. Brief, charming nuggets of tune abound.

I’ve written before about my snobbishness. You may find the music of La La Land more to your taste than I did, to say nothing of the glamorous Emma Stone and the glorious cinematography, each separately worth the price of admission. She has elevated no shortage of undercooked movies before (see Zombieland, The Amazing Spider-Man, Aloha, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and when provided with something not without its flaws but altogether much more robust, the Oscar she earned for Best Actress starts to look more and more inevitable. And that enchanting planetarium sequence is something to behold.

Should a film be congratulated for doing something different if that something different is blatant pandering, however well executed? Your mileage may vary. La La Land promises to whisk you away to a heightened reality of colour and music, if just for a few hours, and delivers solidly on that promise. The fools who dream indeed. It wouldn't have hurt to dream a little differently, but dream they did.