Coming off my discussion on the effectiveness of music in movies in my previous post, I mentioned how the use of music in La La Land could more or less cover almost all of my examples, and so, I'd like to just go down the list from top to bottom and discuss why each of the main pieces of music in this movie are so brilliant in their inclusion, and what it says not only about the use of music in and of itself, but in movies in general.
Now, being a musical, of course the movie is going to be pretty heavy in music. But just being a musical doesn't necessarily guarantee that the music in said movie will actually be effective. So I want to discuss precisely why the music in this movie is so effective, despite it being a musical, and how it all comes together to create such an all around magical movie going experience.
The movie opens with "Another Day of Sun", which more or less sets the mood not only for the movie to come, but also for the tone of the music that we can expect as well. This song is also the quintessential fantasy piece to really set us in the state of mind to prepare us for the journey our leads are about to stumble upon, as it establishes not only the LA setting, but the dreamer's mindset that has brought so many to this city, in their desperate chase for stardom, getting knocked down with reality checks, but having to pick themselves back up and keep at it, never allowing themselves to falter in their dreams.
"Behind these hills I'm reaching for the heights
And chasing all the lights
And when they let you down
You'll get up off the ground
As the morning rolls around
And it's another day of sun"
Our next piece is "Someone in the Crowd", as Mia's friends try to urge her to go out with them, because who knows, the one you might be looking for to give you your big break might just be out there waiting for you. There's a number of things to note about this song. One, it's the first song actually performed by one of our leads, and it's also the last main song to feature anyone else. This song takes place before the two meet up, while they're still lost in their own worlds, before they come together and begin to tell a story all their own as the two's journeys intertwine, and they really start to leave their prior lives behind and push each other to take the necessary steps that'll help them achieve their dreams.
Musically, this song directly continues in the upbeat jazzy style established by "Another Day of Sun", and it also sets the stage for a number of elements that'll come into play later on, acting as probably the most foreshadowing song in the whole film. Later on, we'll discuss Mia's audition song, and the story she tells there.
But this song completely foreshadows her success, both lyrically, as it is literally someone in the crowd of her one-woman show who calls her up for an audition later on in the film, and the story she tells about her Aunt diving into the river is foreshadowed here visually as well, as Mia first looks in the mirror and questions the direction she's headed and if this is all worth it, but picks herself back up, steps back out into the party, and back into her crazy, fantastic dreams, as the music pauses and we focus on a guy jumping off a roof and into a swimming pool, mirroring the story of her Aunt in that moment, as the onlookers begin dancing in unison all around.
"Is someone in the crowd the only thing you really see?
Watching while the world keeps spinning round
Somewhere there's a place where I find who I'm gonna be
Somewhere that's just waiting to be found"
Up next is "Mia and Sebastian's Theme", which Sebastian performs as he rebels against his boss' wishes and starts playing a small piece of free jazz on the piano. This song is the first of several in this musical that actually doesn't even feature any lyrics at all, yet the musical manages to make this aspect work wonderfully all the same, taking these pieces and oftentimes making them feel like surreal sequences out of something like Fantasia, and utilizing dreamy, upbeat melodies that makes them just as catchy and memorable as their more lyrical counterparts.
And this particular piece is also the main theme song of the movie, one that continues to come into play over and over again, in one of the more clever elements that the movie utilizes. This is the song that Sebastian plays when he and Mia first formally meet one another. And though their initial meeting isn't exactly a pleasant one, in hindsight, the song manages to draw them closer together over and over again, and take an unpleasant moment and turn it into something heartwarming.
I mentioned in my original write-up for the movie in my end of year list how I loved this movie's use of nostalgia as an active element in the movie, particularly when compared to how so many other lesser films poorly incorporate nostalgia into their films. Oftentimes, movies these days will throw in these obnoxious winks and nudges to other films or media, which instantly put the movie on pause to take us out and remind us of something else. Here, though, they use this song as a means to make us nostalgic for moments in the movie itself, not unlike the examples I had mentioned before in my previous post, about how hearing certain songs can take us back in time to a prior moment in our lives. And this movie totally takes that concept and uses it to make us nostalgic for the movie itself, as we're watching it. I just found this so clever, and so awesome, and so refreshing all throughout, and left me wishing that more movies could find more similarly clever ways to utilize their rampant nostalgia in a way that doesn't disengage the audience, as is so often the case these days.
This is followed up by a handful of '80s pop songs, as Mia attends a pool party in which she discovers Sebastian is performing the keytar for an '80s cover band. And the songs they perform are "Take On Me" and, by request, "I Ran", and have thus been added to the list of similar songs such as "Stuck in the Middle With You" from Reservoir Dogs or any of the songs from Guardians of the Galaxy as tracks that every time they come on the radio, I'll be instantly transported to the scene in the movie that they're a part of (and this has already happened on a number of occasions for me while at work, in fact).
As Sebastian walks Mia to her car after the party, the two have their first duet in the form of "A Lovely Night", where the first half features the two singing, and the second half is entirely lyric-less, as the two dance along to the music, showing the two's different styles coming together in one beautiful piece, just as the characters themselves grow to form a connection with one another, a connection that's shown through the music and the visuals of the sequence.
That's one of the things I love about this movie, is how much of the story is very much told through its music, through its visuals. And it's a common complaint that I've already seen quite a bit, how some feel the movie is underwritten, or that the relationship between Mia and Sebastian isn't fleshed out enough. But that's because in this movie, it's not fleshed out in a more traditional manner through dialogue. Music is what brought the two together for the first time as Seb was playing the main them, and it's through music that their relationship really begins to blossom. And this song totally encapsulates the real starting point of their romance, first teasing one another with their words, before really coming together in a beautiful dance number on a stunning, lovely night.
But even in a more general sense in regards to the arguments against this movie's writing, I think it's important to note that a movie's writing includes more than just dialogue. But the way a movie plays out, its interwoven themes throughout and overall structure of story all have to be taken into account as well when discussing a film's writing. And in terms of telling a beautiful story through its music and visuals and how it all comes together in such a clever and wonderful fashion, not merely paying homage to films past, but taking elements and incorporating them in a more organic way to tell a story about nostalgia and dreams, and the drive to succeed, and effectively telling this story through its use of music throughout, then all things considered, the writing in this movie was quite frankly phenomenal, and is more than deserving of its accolades thus far.
"But I'm frankly feeling nothing"
"Is that so?"
"Or it could be less than nothing"
"Good to know
So you agree?"
"What a waste of a lovely night"
"Herman's Habit" is the jazz number that plays as Seb takes Mia out to a jazz club, and really drives home another element that makes this movie stand out as such an impactful film to me. He discusses with her the various elements of the song they're listening to, how the sax player might interject with something he's got in mind, or the trumpet player might hijack the song for a moment and go on a bit of a solo, and how it's all real and raw and alive.
Music is a living, breathing entity. Or, at least, it was, but the more it becomes commercialized, the more that human element becomes lost, and what we're listening to loses the heart and the emotional impact that it could possibly deliver. And this, too, is shown all throughout in the form of Emma Stone's and Ryan Gosling's raw, earnest, and passionate performances as Mia and Sebastian, who aren't exactly the greatest singers nor the greatest dancers, but damn if they don't give it their all and give the movie a very sincere feel to it. And this element of the humanity of music being lost winds up coming into play in a big way later on in the movie, which I'll dive more into as we get to those particular pieces.
After they depart, Sebastian begins whistling to himself, as he ponders over his recent interactions with Mia and sings a little tune by the name of "City of Stars", in its first rendition. At this point, Seb is a guy who has been repeatedly beaten down by life and had every opportunity thrown in his face, which is a recurring theme we see play out all throughout the movie, first introduced in the lyrics of the opening song, and then shown to us as we've followed both Mia and Sebastian up to this point. And so, he sees things going well with Mia, and yet, as he sings this somber song, and keeping his history in mind, he questions if things will finally go right this time, or if it'll just be like every other time. And my god is this song so relatable to me, as I have experienced this very thing over and over again, so much that I find myself asking these same questions anytime something seems to be going right, I'll just be wondering in the back of my head, how long before it starts going wrong again, like it always, always does?
This is such a depressing song because it just hits right home in the worst of ways. But it doesn't just show how badly life has taken its toll on Seb in this moment, it also shows just how much he's continued to get back up and keep at it, how many chances he's continued to take, despite all his efforts up to this point falling flat, despite all his talent or other positive qualities, keeping up with the themes of continuing to push forward and chase after your dreams, no matter how many times you might be let down.
Is this the start of something wonderful
Or one more dream
That I cannot make true"
Mia and Sebastian then go on their first real date and dance through the stars to the tune of "Planetarium", one of the most fantastical sequences in the entire movie, as the two's dream of being with one another looks to be coming true. This is another fully instrumental piece, but my lord is the music here just a delight, and has such a wondrous, romantic, and uplifting feel to it, like the ultimate culmination of all of the pieces that had preceded it, all culminating in their very first embrace, as we reach a real turning point, for their relationship, for the movie, and for the music itself as well.
After experiencing a "Summer Montage", where we see the two's romance really start to bloom, we get the first real sign of the movie taking somewhat of a different direction, with the reprise of "City of Stars", this time featuring both Sebastian as well as Mia. And the singing in this particular version is also captured entirely on set, as we see as the two wind up making each other giggle a handful of times while they're performing. It shows how the movie is not only taking a bit of a more modern approach to the musical at this point, but how it's also becoming a bit more grounded, as the more fantastical elements start to go away a bit for something more of a realistic approach. And by featuring the two singing live on set and getting those real emotions out of them, it also really emphasizes the living, human element to their music that Seb had argued for earlier, and makes the song stand out all the more for it, like we're peeking into a more intimate moment in these two's lives.
But by this point in the movie, now that the two have really found one another and have pushed one another to really take the right steps towards making their dreams a reality, it's that reality that starts to set in here, which is emphasized both by this song's placement, as well as its execution. This is a lovely rendition, but one that in hindsight becomes almost heartbreaking, as we witness this lovely moment of innocence between these two, just before that reality that's about to set in casts a dark cloud over their relationship.
I felt it from the first embrace I shared with you"
"That now our dreams
May finally come true"
And that reality first really sets in with the song "Start a Fire", which Seb performs alongside his new band in front of a packed venue full of screaming fans. Mia is taken aback as the song starts to kick in, and all of the electronics and commercialized elements that it incorporates, and how this feels totally contrary to Seb's values as a musician. There's a real lack of humanity here, a lack of that real raw and living, breathing element that Seb has stressed so much about up until this point. That's not to say that this is a bad song, mind you, but it is a noticeably weaker one, which is precisely the point. And even in the way it's presented in the movie, as merely a performance on the stage to a roaring audience, feels more disconnected compared to all of the prior tracks up to this point.
It's not just the music either, but also the way the film is edited at this point that starts to change up. Up until this point, most of the movie is filmed in very long takes, where moments between our characters are shared on the same screen at the same time, without ever really cutting away. But here, the camera suddenly starts cutting all around, further showing the disconnect between the music and the audience. The fact that this is also pretty much the most forgettable track on the whole soundtrack is also an intentional choice, to really prove Seb's point about the human element in music elevating it to another level, while the more it becomes commercialized, the more diluted and disposable it becomes as a result.
But the more cut up way of filmmaking continues on from this point, and culminates in an extremely uncomfortable dinner conversation between the two filmed in shot/reverse-shot, a typical style of filmmaking in most movies, but an approach that's rarely used in this movie, but stands out whenever it is, to show us just how disconnected the characters in the scene have become from one another, no longer sharing the frame together with one another.
So things begin to fall apart between the two, and Mia reaches her breaking point and goes home, as we hear a sad piano accompaniment "Engagement Party", played by Seb at his sister's engagement ceremony. But, as it turns out, someone in the crowd at Mia's show was very impressed with her performance, and so Seb tracks her down in order to attend her big "Audition".
Emma Stone's big solo Oscar moment, as the lights turn down and all focus is solely on her telling this tale about her Aunt, and the crazy risks she took in order to chase after her dreams, and how this has inspired her own journey. It's a moment that's been foreshadowed all throughout the whole film, and it's all laid out on the line in the most passionate rendition of the whole film, as Mia belts her heart out in this striking, moving piece.
And the story she tells is one that anyone who dreams big can take so much away from. It tells of the heartache you'll have to endure, the insane drive it'll take to succeed, and the mad, unrealistic frame of mind it'll take to reach such unrealistic expectations, all of which has been driven home hard again and again by this point in the film, all coming out in one last emotional plea.
"She told me
A little madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us
And that's why they need us
So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters and poets and plays
And here's to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here's to the hearts that break
Here's to the mess we make"
The movie then jumps ahead five years after our two leads have finally achieved their dreams, but at the cost of their relationship. And when they unexpectedly stumble upon each other, they find themselves lost in a moment of nostalgia, as we relive their experiences in the film's "Epilogue", and go on a journey, hesitantly at first, through rose colored glasses as we look at what could have been, and how things could've ended up so right for them, but how life had its way at tearing them apart and sending them down different paths.
And as we relive their experiences through a new lens, we, too, relive all of the music that we've experienced as well, all brought together so seamlessly, and really showing just how each and every single piece of music in this film is all part of a greater whole, each a connecting piece to a much larger puzzle that had been put together over the course of the film. But that's just really one of the things I loved absolutely most about this musical when compared to so many others. It's not just a movie that just happens to have breaks where they decide to just sing and dance with various pieces of music. With the exception of "Start a Fire", which is explicitly intended to not fit in, each and every single song compliments one other. They each flow together as just smaller pieces to the full package, and it continues in the movie's accompanied score, which also continues to string along this same connecting tune between songs.
But this is all shown so beautifully in this grand sweeping finale, as we return once more to the more fantastical musical elements from earlier in the film, when our characters were more stuck in their heads, holding onto their dreams that looked so far away, before reality could set in. But then, as the song begins to wind down, and reality once more begins to take its course, the music itself becomes almost tragically sad, and we're left with an absolute gut punch of heartbreaking emotion as the song just sorta fizzles to a depressing close.
But it's not entirely all bad, as just before Mia leaves, she chances one last glance back to the tune of "The End", and they share one more smile, one that says so much about their journey and what it meant to them, all while the two remain completely silent, and we come to a grand close to this magical tale about two aspiring artists chasing their dreams, and what they had to lose along the way in order to make those dreams a reality, as the music plays us out on a hopeful note that assures us that all is well in the end, even if we didn't get everything we had wanted along the way.
So all throughout the movie, its use of music showed us examples of how to best utilize music in a way that not only elevates the material, but also helps tell the story and drive the mood of the moment. And it even provided moments of using popular tracks in an organic way within scenes, to where these songs are now forever associated with the movie in a way where merely hearing them on the radio will now transport us back to this movie all over again. But not only that, the movie also provided explicit examples of how music can be incorporated in a way that's disengaging for the audience, so it really did cover the full spectrum of my arguments made in my previous post covering the effectiveness of music in movies in a more general sense, beating me to the punch by providing all of my arguments that I had prepared in the form of an actual film, as opposed to a mere written essay.
And with that, I suppose that brings us more or less to a close on this discussion as well. I've already seen the movie four times, and have grown to love it more and more each time, to where I'm already confident considering it among my Top 3 Movies of the Decade so far. And each time I revisit this emotional journey, I find myself becoming more and more torn up inside by it all in the end. Hell, just revisiting these moments as I've written this post has at times gotten me teary eyed, and there's no doubt that its brilliant use of music has a lot to thank for that.