Music, ultimately, should convey and incite emotions – joy, sorrow and anticipation to name a few.
It should never be ignored.
Even when it’s only something to accompany a phenomenal film, the soundtrack should be able to stand alone, letting the listener relive the victories and the heartbreaks.
And that’s exactly what Justin Hurwitz’s “La La Land” soundtrack does: mesmerize the listener and make it seem like they’re back in “La La Land.”
The soundtrack, which hit the second spot on the Billboard 500 a month after “La La Land” premiered in theaters Dec. 9, contains 15 songs, a third of which feature the voices of leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
“Another Day of Sun”
“Another Day of Sun,” the opening number of the film, is simply “La La Land” in a nutshell: a Hollywood-fashion blend of ‘50s-musical-esque singing and ‘30s jazz, uplifting but slightly regretful.
In it, the listener is greeted by the first of several musical motifs that run throughout the movie.
There are six melodies that serve as motifs throughout the film, foreshadowing events or expressing the characters’ ambitions and dreams.
The piano is bright and brash. The same melody is then repeated by soft “bum bum bum da’s” in a female voice (not Stone’s but Angela Parrish’s, a professional singer).
Pouncing percussion and brass come after every chord change, energizing the piece.
And then the lyrics arrive, cleverly forecasting the entire movie and setting up the dream-reality tension.
Soon after, the chorus begins, and the full cast is heard.
It makes you want to tap your feet and sing along.
The instrumental interlude, carried by the flute and held together by the steady bass and percussion, leads into the softer reprise of the chorus that powerfully bursts and stays at forte for the rest of the piece.
New voices and harmonies join seamlessly to the chorus.
After the (almost) last line of “It’s another day of sun” is sung, there is a brief replay of the melody by the booming brass section.
Car horns sound (since in the movie this scene took place on a highway) and briefly interrupt before the last “It’s another day of sun.”
“Someone in the Crowd”
“Someone in the Crowd” starts in a sing-songy dialog between Stone and her roommates.
Between each roommate’s line are brief interjections from the violins or brass in a somewhat big-band fashion.
It all builds and builds until the chorus, when new harmonies are added to the mix.
A short instrumental interlude featuring the brass and percussion follows the ending of the first chorus and ends slowing into Stone’s understated and minor version of the chorus.
Then the true magic begins: the second interlude.
The simple swelling melody starts off quietly and slowly; the woodwind section remains dominant. Then the lower brass start to fill into the melody, and it slowly starts speeding up. The percussion, and later the higher brass, follows suit, the strings stirring up the excitement with an anticipatory tremolo.
Then unexpected silence strikes – the calm before the explosion of singing from the whole choir. The percussion and violins charge this burst with power.
The dynamic range in this piece is wonderful. Even if you’ve listened to it countless times (as I have), the piece doesn’t become predictable.
The lyrics are hopeful, yet there is always a tinge of sadness inside some of the chords.
“Mia and Sebastian’s Theme”
“Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” is refined and reflective – and makes me regret that I quit playing piano when I was 6.
It’s all piano (and all Gosling at that), and it’s so expressive.
Throughout the beautiful melody are lovely minor chords. Toward the end, the jazzy and almost furious part of the melody pops up as you hear the keys rapidly being pounded – faster and faster, louder and louder – until it ends on a powerful minor chord.
“A Lovely Night”
“A Lovely Night” is the first time the listener hears Gosling sing.
A minor caution is that Stone and Gosling are actors, not necessarily singers. Thus their lines, sung very well, may not be the most in-tune thing you’ve ever heard (which applies to other tracks too).
But the piece is sweet, flirty and playful.
And I’m not even a huge fan of romance.
Everything, from the harp to the violins and the glockenspiel and later marimba and saxophone, is so flirtatious.
When the full symphony gets the main melody during the interlude, they raise the piece and build upon the melody.
Now instead of Gosling and Stone’s characters it’s the violins and the brass section who are bantering.
“Herman’s Habit” is a classy, jazzy piece that combines saxophone, trumpet, percussion and bass.
It sounds straight out of a jazz club, and it seemingly has no ties to the other motifs.
Upon a closer listen, though, it seems to be a deconstructed and minor/bluesy version of “Someone in the Crowd.”
Nonetheless, like Gosling’s character Seb would say, “It’s full of conflict and compromise; it’s jazz.”
“City of Stars”
“City of Stars” starts with only repeating piano chords (which remains consistent for the entire piece), a marimba and a glockenspiel.
But this is Gosling’s song, with his lower register and whistling taking center stage.
The cello comes in and accompanies him for a while (a little touch I, as a cellist, appreciated).
It’s sultry and hopeful, but shades of pain remain exposed in the piano’s chord progression.
The entrance of the violins after the short rest sends chills up my spine every time.
“Planetarium” is a whimsical piece, incorporating the full orchestra.
It has a not-from-this-world feeling.
The flute and harp start listeners on their journey, with enchanting scales and playful remarks from the woodwinds and later violins and bassoon.
And the bells and pizzicato add to its mystery.
The most enchanting part comes about three-fourths of the way in with a sudden forte and swelling from the violins.
The orchestra starts to appear to be playing a familiar melody.
Its echo (from, again, the cello section!) is spellbinding, and eventually it loops around to the brass section, which adds a tinge of bitterness.
Dynamically, the song ends with the full orchestra on a beautiful major chord.
“Summer Montage” is just a clever, jazzy reprise of “A Lovely Night.”
It’s light and unapologetically joyous.
The trumpet takes center stage during this piece, backed up by a complete jazz ensemble.
The second version of “City of Stars” features both Gosling and Stone. It’s very light on the orchestra, though.
This song reflects how their relationship has evolved. It isn’t as flirtatious and fun as “A Lovely Night”; it’s deeper.
“Start a Fire,” an original John Legend song, sounds bold, bluesy and R&B. Legend is a talented singer, and it’s refreshing to have a different twist on the soundtrack.
With the synthesizer, rock guitar and backup singers, it feels very unlike anything else on the disk.
It still incorporates some jazzy elements but is mostly a stand-alone piece with no connection to the other tracks.
“Engagement Party” – the all-piano, minor version of “Someone in the Crowd” – is contemplative and soothing.
“Audition” starts with Stone’s spoken monologue. A few of her notes are just herself, without piano accompaniment.
That, in my opinion, was the riskiest part of the entire soundtrack, as Stone was vulnerable, without protection from an orchestral ensemble to back her up.
Stone solos for the entire song, gradually building up to the climax: Stone’s strongest musical moment.
The words resonate to lands outside of “La La Land,” emphasizing the importance of personal dreams and ambitions.
This track is by far the most perfect, and it incorporates all the musical themes inside of “La La Land.”
Listening to this track is like watching the entire movie again – it has it all.
It pays homage to the movie; it brings closure.
It opens with a somber, slow and soft buildup to “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” on the piano of course.
The pace rapidly increases, but doesn’t end like the earlier track. It sounds triumphant yet defeated, and the piano part trails off into silence, from where the full orchestra (led by the violins) breaks into a loud and vibrant reprise of that same theme.
The reprise comes down and goes straight into an orchestral version of “Another Day of Sun,” led by the piano and brass.
The violins and woodwind sections add new notes, and the main melody alternates between the brass and the violins.
Then it suddenly becomes quiet and along comes a reprise of the “Someone in the Crowd” theme.
The flutes and woodwinds carry the melody with the lower strings cutting in and delivering notes to complete the chords in between.
This builds until the melody is stolen by the loud and vivacious brasses, with the violins adding layers and harmonies to the melody.
The violins lead into the next theme, the “Audition” theme.
The contrast between the bright, upbeat “Someone in the Crowd” theme and the contemplativeness of the “Audition” theme is huge, but Hurwitz finds a way to prevent the difference from becoming too jarring.
Bells play broken chords while a single violin carries the “Audition” melody.
It sends chills down my spine.
Then, at the climax of that melody, the orchestra rises from the ground up carry that theme to higher places.
The bells and woodwinds give it an almost childlike feeling of something mystical and innocent. There is a naiveté to it.
That melody flows into a full-blown jazz-style version of… “Audition”!
On first listen, it doesn’t seem like the new jazzy melodies are connected to earlier songs, but they are really a jazzy, swing-style version of “Audition.”
Then a trumpet solo with an unknown but very melancholy theme steals the show.
Following is a full orchestral version of something that resembles “Planetarium.”
Interlaced in the familiar melodies are choral voices, adding a sense of awe to the theme.
The violins – and all the orchestra – are singing.
The choral voices steal the violins’ melody, and bells, flutes and violins add to the somber yet magical feeling.
That ends, and the flute takes the melody to a new place through a series of downward scales.
We are dropped off to the violins having a tremolo and a piano playing an all-too familiar theme: “City of Stars.”
The scene that accompanies this in the film is one of the most heart-wrenching, and, again, I am amazed at the amount of emotion the solo piano conveys.
Then the piano returns to “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” this time sadder, slower and more thoughtful than ever.
It ends simply, on one little note.
“The End” lets you relive the moment that made you want to yell “No!” in the theater.
Led by the flute, it carries “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” to the piano.
But it doesn’t end there. It ends on a high note – literally – with the entire orchestra and choir ending it in a dramatic major chord.