In Defense Of The ‘La La Land’ Soundtrack

I hated La La Land. The entire time I sat in the theater, trying to enjoy the sounds of Ryan Gosling mumbling his way through the movie’s thin plot while a man behind me snored and a woman to my side loudly beeped every ten seconds because she was connected to a breathing apparatus, all I wanted to do was go home.

I wanted to go home so badly, in fact, that I asked my husband if he’d like to leave three times. I asked him during the scene in which Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling soar through the sky for three glorious seconds; I asked him again when Ryan Gosling — the white savior of jazz — walked up to a black couple on some pier or other and graciously gave them permission to dance as he sang; and I asked to leave once more as the movie faded from colorful to monochromatic — we get it, thank you — and Emma Stone tried to achieve her dreams one last time before having to decide whether Hollywood was really for her.

I was all set to hate La La Land for life. But, boy oh boy do I love the soundtrack.

And as soon as you get past the fact that it’s not a standalone and was created to shore up the film that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling will win every award for, you’ll love it, too. Even if you hate musicals. Unlike the movie, which I found ultimately forgettable (sad, as I had been looking forward to it for months, and it’s worth noting many people loved it), the music is unshakeable and hypnotic, putting me in a good mood as soon as I open my computer and cue up the custom playlist I made on Spotify.

And two days after I saw the film, I found myself still humming along to the movie’s opening number, “Another Day Of Sun.”

The humming quickly turned into whistling, and then, to my horror, I started singing it out loud, terrifying friends and family alike as I belted “BEHIND THESE HILLS I’M REACHING FOR THE HEIGHTS” while also trying to do the musical flourishes that make the song so memorable. Because if there’s anything about Damian Chazelle’s rambling, self-congratulatory love letter to Old Hollywood that worked, it was the music: From that big, big opening, to the epilogue, which is seven minutes of symphonic ecstasy that will, no doubt, serve as the overture to the Broadway version of the film one day soon.

In his review of the soundtrack, Jørn Tillnes of Soundtrack Geek notes that one of the reasons that the score is already so revered (and flying off shelves since its record-breaking Golden Globes wins) is due to the fact that Justin Hurwitz, the composer, brings back sounds that are not only absent from any other best picture nominees this year, but “largely absent from Hollywood.”

The music of La La Land is authentic without being careful. It knows that it’s made to haunt you long after the film is over and there’s no time wasted in trying to make it anything other than what it is — at times a joyful and taciturn reminder that the movie is a big-time Hollywood production with all the trimmings required to make you want to see it again and again, and, if you’re one of those kids in high school, spontaneously burst into bits of songs from the film with no warning or provocation.

Take “Another Day Of Sun” for instance. On the surface, it’s a cute number about the hopes and dreams of Hollywood fame-seekers who want to make it big, yet will ultimately return to the Greyhound stations in Santa Fe where they left their lives to pursue stardom. But while the topic at hand is a bittersweet reminder that sometimes good things don’t happen to even the most talented and deserving people, the frenetic piano that opens the song makes it hard to feel anything but joy, even as the singers lament leaving their loves and having the door shut in their faces on their slow rise to stardom. As the music swells from verse to chorus, it’s impossible not to tap your feet and want to leap atop a car and kick your feet, just for a few minutes.

While many musicals struggle to get the audience to suspend disbelief about why anyone and everyone is singing, “Another Day Of Sun” has no problem drawing you in and demanding you listen, wondering why every movie doesn’t start out in the same way that this one does — from the latest Seth Rogen stoner comedy to whatever Jessica Chastain’s doing to win an Oscar these days. Hated Miss Sloane? Imagine how much better it would have been if it had featured — for at least three minutes — a song and dance number that included tapping and car horns.

Though “Another Day of Sun” is clearly the best bit on the soundtrack, the hits keep rolling even as the movie descends deeper and deeper into awards-bait. “Someone In The Crowd,” the film’s second big number (complete with people diving into a swimming pool in a choreographed routine) is a little cringey to watch, but a joy to listen to as a chorus of what sounds like millions espouses the wonders of networking at parties while riffing on the same musical refrains from the opening number. And “A Lovely Night,” the meet-cute duet Stone and Gosling sing about 15 minutes into the movie, sends your oxytocin levels into overdrive with its jazzy “this is totally a summer barbecue song” strings and whistles — all despite Ryan Gosling’s best efforts to bring it down with his understated “I’m not really a singer, but, like, I’ll do it for this movie” vocalization efforts. (We all saw you on the Mickey Mouse Club, Ryan!)

Of course, it’s fun to hate on Gosling’s musical performance, but there’s something to be said for the fact that the main actors in the film, save for John Legend who appears for about ten minutes looking like he’d rather be anywhere else, aren’t actual singers. I hated the conceit at first (and again, Gosling doesn’t do much to convince anyone it was a good idea), but Emma Stone transcends both the script and the music, making her one big song — an audition sequence during which she effortlessly transitions from telling a boring story about her aunt to singing a beautiful (but ultimately mawkish) song about how that same aunt (possibly named Mame?) taught her to live, laugh, and love — into a showstopper. The song, Hurwitz later revealed, was shot in one take.

Here’s the thing: Stone’s voice isn’t great. She wouldn’t make it past the second call-back at an audition that requires real vocal chops*; but what she lacks in musicality, she makes up for in emotion, truly making the song what Paula Abdul would drunkenly call “her own” were Stone a contestant on American Idol.

Her performance, especially as she slips from speaking to singing is painful and melancholy and her phrasing makes you all but forget the inane lyrics like “she lived in her liquor and died with a flicker,” Stone sings, shamelessly selling her beloved aunt out as an alcoholic in service of a rhyme, and overcoming the fact that she has to shout to be heard over the instruments in the latter half of the song. And I still can’t stop listening to it. And crying. And thinking Hey, maybe it’s time I reached for those dreams, too, huh? I’m only 32, it’s not too late. These are feelings I haven’t experience in a long while, and certainly not while watching the film. But listening to Stone on her own, nervous, her voice almost — but never — cracking, made me remember my own young ambitions to take Hollywood, Broadway, any entertainment avenue by storm only on the power of my unrelenting desire to succeed.

I’ve since listened to the audition sequence (formally known as “The Fools Who Dream”) performed by other artists. They range from poppy, to folksy, to operatic. One features a ukulele. Another, performed by a duo, one member of which was in the film, makes it part of a La La Land medley, turning it into a soft contemporary masterpiece. None are as good as Stone’s, because none of them are singing a character. None of their phrasing choices are influenced by the hope and heartbreak that Stone’s character feels at what she sees is her one last chance, and none will stick with you in the same way, even if the singer’s breath control is on point and their pitch perfect.

The rest of the soundtrack is a pleasant jaunt through accessible jazz, there are a lot of riffs and reprises and “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” is a nice bit of melancholy, but the audition song, “Another Day Of Sun,” and “The Epilogue” (which I can’t say much about due to #spoilers) are instant repeats. “The Epilogue,” especially, which features no vocals and is just one sweeping orchestral maneuver after another, is particularly motivational if you’re trying to get work done, working yourself up to ask for a raise — it swells and it ebbs and it gets your blood going — or going out for a run. “City Of Stars” may win the Oscar for best original song, but it’s these three that will bring you back to the soundtrack again and again, praising Hurtwitz’s talents while constantly wondering why you can’t stop listening.

I won’t ever see La La Land again. And I’ll continue telling my friends, who are all currently obsessed, that I can see why others liked it, although it “really wasn’t for me.” But I’ll also keep listening to the soundtrack much longer than I’ve already expected. And if I ever find the record player I bought a few years ago and learn how to work it, I’ll check to see if La La Land is available on vinyl [Editor’s note: Of course it is].

And perhaps loving the soundtrack while detesting the film isn’t as antithetical as it may seem. Like Emma Stone’s Mia, who dislikes jazz even after Gosling’s Sebastian spends too much time explaining why it’s the best form of music, enjoying the soundtrack allows those of us who didn’t connect to the story to appreciate the movie’s most compelling aspects without conforming to the idea that La La Land is the zenith of 21st century film-making.