La La Land

Last night I finally went to go and see La La Land. I’m happy to say it lived up to my expectations.

Over the past few years I’ve made a habit of listening to podcasts while driving to work in the morning. I find it’s a great way to redeem that time, since it allows me to connect with a wide range of different of things I’m interested in: news, tech, software, design, psychology, science, and the arts.

SongExploder falls pretty squarely into that last (arts) category. Produced and edited by host and creator Hrishikesh Hirway, it’s “a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.” And it really is quite masterfully done. Don’t believe me? Vulture described it as “probably the best use of the podcast format ever”, and over the last two years it’s won awards for best podcast from Quartz, Vulture and The Academy of Podcasters among others. Seriously, you should check it out.

So it came to be that on the Thursday of my first week back at work for 2017, I fired up Episode 92 of Song Exploder during my morning commute. A tranquil piano theme can be heard in the background as Hirway narrates the introduction:

“The film La La Land tells the story of Mia, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone, and Sebastian, a jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling, both of them struggling artists in Los Angeles. The musical was written and directed by Damien Chazelle in collaboration with composer Justin Hurwitz. It’s the third film they’ve made together, and the follow-up to the Oscar-winning film Whiplash. In this episode, Justin Hurwitz breaks down a song from the film sung by Emma Stone; it’s called Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”

Less than 2 minutes in and I was already hooked. I absolutely loved Whiplash! It’s one of very few film dvds I actually own, so that probably says quite a lot. I like to think my appreciation for movies is pretty broad (probably like many people) and I love to listen to different soundtracks, but I suppose as a musician myself there is just something particularly magical to me about movies that make music their substance, as opposed to a flavourant. The conventional production order of picture and then music often has to be reversed (at least in parts), which makes for something unique. Anyway, Whiplash made a big impression. So a new film following in it’s wake was sure to be something I’d be interested in. And the fact that it also involved a jazz pianist was a serious bonus for someone like me.

Listening to Justin Hurwitz talk about the movie and the work that went into this song in particular gave me a good sense of the central theme of the film. It’s all about the struggle of chasing your dream(s). For Chazelle and Hurwitz, getting this movie made was a dream they had to chase. At times they had to put it aside, but it really was a passion project, and I think that shows in the final product. Justin speaks of producing “a little over 1900 piano demos for this movie”. That sounds like a lot of hard work and dedication to me. And Chazelle has spoken in interviews of how there “wasn’t a lot of excitement in the room when we initially pitched La La Land around town”. LionsGate were the only ones (eventually) brave enough to take it on.

There’s plenty of praise and plenty of criticism floating around online regarding the movie and it’s ending in particular, but in the interest of avoiding any direct spoilers I’m not going to dig into those details. I get that it’s probably not everyones cup of tea but I really thought it was a great movie and thoroughly enjoyed it. The contrast of traditional vs modern ideas and the push towards compromise and trade-offs is thoughtfully interwoven into many of the movie’s themes: the development of romance vs relationship, career growth vs dreams & ambitions, music then and now, and especially into the style of the movie-making itself. When you take a few steps back I think it’s all really quite brilliant.

The movie left me with much to think about and reflect on (and that alone is usually a sign of a good movie), but overall it resonated with and inspired me. A few years ago I remember chatting with my brother after he had done the Myers Briggs personality test, and having got a fair bit out of it in terms of understanding how he was wired to see things and work with different people he encouraged me to do it too. It turns out we balance each other out quite well in some respects, one example being that by comparison to him I’m quite the realist. But movies like La La Land remind me of the dreamer that lives inside of me. At the end of the day we all have dreams and ambitions. Though we may need to compromise at times, holding onto and pursuing our dreams is what will drive us to do something great. As composer Justin Hurwitz says:

“If I stop feeling like a dreamer then I don’t think my music is going to be very good”.