Another Day of Sun
There are lots of reasons to love La La Land. We meet characters full of dreams and flaws, living in an exaggerated-but-honest representation of Hollywood: a setting abundant in sacrifices, traffic jams, and delusion, but also art, dreams, and magic . It is OK for things not to go our way in the city of stars, because it’s also OK to dream. At the end of the day, the struggles don’t matter as long as we live in La La Land – the film is such a perfect match for its title, that it will leave you wondering which came first, or if it even matters.
This La La Land is brought to life by of the most beautiful photography and production design we’ve seen in years – and yes, I used the word “beautiful” because there is really no better word to describe it. Sure, they are appropriate to the setting and story, but all the technical elements that make up the film are so beautiful and dreamy, that we forget whether or not they are fitting and rather take them all in as a packaged feast for the senses. It’s within this world of magic that one element, while also fitting, manages to stand out from it all: Justin Hurwitz’s score. From the first scene, we feel like bursting into song with the rest of the characters of La La Land, and we can’t help but to “feel good” with the crowd. Recreating the magic of its setting is one of Chazelle’s biggest strengths: we hate LA traffic so much that it makes us wonder why we are even there – in my case, LA traffic almost killed me – but there’s a dreamer inside us who makes it all worthwhile.
Additionally, even if it’s not completely accurate, I remain a big fan of Chazelle’s view of the world of jazz , because some of the elements portraying that world are so well represented that we have no trouble forgiving those that are not. But what is it about Hurwitz’s score that makes it such a wonderful celebration of its story, characters, and setting? Let’s take a look.
It’s all about kiss…
Kiss is not a demonstration of love, but rather a mantra that I use for myself and that I also teach in my Music Production classes at SAE. Kiss stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. I am not completely sure this is where the acronym comes from, but at least where I first saw it was Tom Peters’ award-winning business book In Search of Excellence. Either way, what matters is what it means: simplicity wins over complexity. This applies to management, to copy-writing, but also to writing music. And it makes sense, does it?
Humans love glorifying the past when life is hard. If we are stressed, we want to lie down in a fetal position that reminds us of being in the womb without any problems stressing us out. The same happens with music: if I were to write a happy go lucky piece of music, I would say keep it simple, because it will take me back to years when life was simple.
How does Hurwitz achieve this? Read below for my…
La La Land’s recipe for musical success
Step 1. Find a simple, happy progression like this one (IV-V-VI-II):
Step 2. Write a melody that keeps the progression very clear in the listener’s mind, by arpeggiating the chords in the progression:
Step 3. Show us everyone doing something that they hate, like sitting in LA traffic.
Step 4. Show those same people bursting into song and dance as a way to fill us with joy and remove us from any unhappiness.
Voila. Recipe for success. All of a sudden, we feel like getting up from our seats and dance on top of our cars.
Is that all there is to it? Not really! Don’t forget that…
Hollywood Loves Movies About Themselves
And so does the Academy! So far, just in this decade, we’ve had three Hollywood-centered films taking the Best Picture award (The Artist, Argo, and Birdman), plus another one still centered in the media industry (Spotlight). That’s 60% of the films (or 80% if you count Spotlight)! While the risks of taking on a setting that is so familiar to those giving out the awards might be big, so are the rewards for a job well done.
But what about the score makes it so perfect for the setting? Well, first let’s take a look again at the choice of style. It just feels like a happy musical! Hurwitz and Chazelle get the musical style so well, that it sounds like the film might have as well been scored by (The Simpsons’ master of musical satire) Alf Clausen.
Replace the French Quarter with the Hollywood sign, the streetcars with Priuses, and the stench with traffic jams. Then imagine them singing “Los Angeles!” instead of “New Orleans!” and you’ll get my point.
I love it
I loved analyzing this score and film. All about it. I wouldn’t know where to start, but I guess I’ll start by saying I live in Atlanta, which has traffic almost as bad as LA’s. But if being stuck in a traffic jam can be as happy as it is in La La Land (the movie), then I’m sure it can be just as happy for me in Atlanta. Heck, it might as well snow – Atlanta doesn’t handle snow well – and I wouldn’t care! Listening to the film’s soundtrack every time I got inside the car made all my problems go away: I may have been stuck in the interstate for an hour, but it all felt as if I had been singing and dancing atop my car for the entire ride.
And that’s just part of the package that makes the film so wonderful: great acting, vibrant, breathtaking photography, astonishing set pieces, and themes with which many of us musicians can relate, are what make this La La Land come to life like no other film setting. The score just matches the film so well, that your brain will automatically paint the colors and magic of the film in your head every time you press play in your car’s stereo. I haven’t had such happy commutes in a good while, and it’s all thanks to Hurwitz, Gazelle, and everyone who made the film.
It is for these reasons that, after watching all the other films nominated, I predict La La Land will win the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Postscript: What to write next
Any ideas? Let me know in the comments below! I’ve received some messages from readers wanting to compose their own “epic orchestral scores,” so some “tutorials” on that might be coming up. I also plan on writing about Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash. I write about Oscar nominated films trying to learn what people in Hollywood find award worthy, and see how well I understand that by trying to guess what the results will be, always from a composer’s point of view – hopefully helping other composers along the way find their own formulas, and helping filmmakers understand composers better. In 2015, I was able to correctly predict that The Grand Budapest Hotel would win the award.That was the only other time I tried to predict who would win the award, since I had to undergo rehabilitation from a major surgery during the 2016 award season.
Hopefully, by the end of the day, I’ll have predicted the winner of this award twice in a row. Do you agree with my prediction? Let me know in the comments below! The 89th annual Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, will air live on ABC from the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center tonight, Sunday, Feb. 26, with a 7 p.m. ET pre-show and 8:30 p.m. ceremony.
[Note: A later version of the progression above uses III-II for the turnaround as opposed to just II]