Thursday, March 23, 2017

Video Essays: The Music of LA LA LAND in Context

Final moments of GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (Chazelle, 2009)
Final moments of WHIPLASH (Chazelle, 2014)
Final moments of LA LA LAND (Chazelle, 2016)
For the last few weeks, Barry Jenkins' masterpiece MOONLIGHT and its inspirations from THREE TIMES (Hou, 2005) and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong, 2000) to KILLER OF SHEEP (1977) were heavily on my mind. And I urge anyone who still has not seen MOONLIGHT to give it a try (around here, it only just hit theaters, in the US it is already available on blu-ray and Netflix, so no excuses there)!

But now to the other greatly deserved - aside from the rather complex issues of whitewashing both L.A. and jazz-saving - awards season darling LA LA LAND, aspects of which I analyzed from mid-December to February: I have finally put together three clips for a soundtrack analysis in Swiss German magazine The German text (which you can find here) goes far beyond the aspects analyzed in the videos. But since LA LA LAND is still in theaters I have limited myself to officially available tracks and clips. 

I/III A Lovely Night 
Mia and Sebastian cross paths twice before they finally meet cute like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Donen/Kelly, 1952) at a pool party. Despite superficially despising each other, Seb walks Mia to her Toyota Prius. On their way through Griffith Park, Seb subtly segues into a singing about how nice this view at dusk would be if only they were "some other girl and guy" who could appreciate the moment together. After a few seconds, this turns out to be an homage to the mating ritual of Mark Sandrich's RKO musicals with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The only difference being that when Astaire woos Rogers in their so-called "integrated" (i.e. off stage) musical numbers we accept them to be world class dancers (and suave singers) because we know about their meta personae. LA LA LAND on the other hand follows all the same moves while celebrating the "authentic" by keeping the protagonists' singing and dancing abilities within reach of what these characters (i.e. rehearsed and well-trained amateurs) would be able to do.

Nevertheless, "A Lovely Night" is the only swing induced song and in the "Summer Montage" version also serves as an ideal example of how Damien Chazelle stages jazz performances. In all his films, Chazelle depicts jazz as an extension of his male protagonist's mindset. And for nonverbal jazz dialogue scenes he likes to use the "jazz whip", a whip pan back and forth between musical dialogue partners.

II/III The Melancholy of Michel Legrand 

Writer-director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz have repeatedly expressed their adoration for Jacques Demy's French new wave musicals LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG (1963) and LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (1967). Apart from direct references to the overarching structure of PARAPLUIES and the opening dance sequence from DEMOISELLES, Hurwitz' music is very much influenced by Michel Legrand whose scores for Demy are impregnated with his trademark cheerful melancholy. Legrand usually builds his easy listening arrangements out of a tight jazz rhythm section with piano and vibes that is overlaid with a romantic orchestra, woodwind solos and sometimes a big band. In this second video I focus on some of the more straight forward influences on Hurwitz' music*. 

III/III Internal Monologue 

The deliberate artificiality of movie musicals allows for storytelling devices that go beyond dialogue scenes. Instead of voice-over monologuing, characters often sing about their innermost feelings and worries. One particular genre convention is the interior monologue after a protagonist has fallen in love. In WEST SIDE STORY, Tony belts out Maria's name in expectant ecstasy, for example. In many movie musicals, however, these songs feel like guarded introspective questions brought forth in a seamless transition from dialogue to song, often in a solitary or indifferent environment. By means of a clip from Stanley Donen's FUNNY FACE (1957, a film that LA LA LAND literally references in the epilogue) where Audrey Hepburn sings in her own natural voice - as opposed to the trained voice of Marni Nixon who dubbed all her singing in MY FAIR LADY (Cukor, 1964) - we see how Chazelle and Hurwitz adapt this musical staple into "It Happened at Dawn" (GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, 2009) and "City of Stars". Despite the superficially obvious difference between Sebastian's "City of Stars" and Mia's "Someone in the Crowd" the two interior monologue songs share surprisingly similar structural elements. And considering the duet version of "City of Stars", both songs express a solitary as well as an exuberant collective version of the same interior feeling. 

* In my opinion, Hurwitz' personal style of arranging and orchestrating is also heavily influenced by Danny Troob's orchestrations of Alan Menken's 1990s Disney scores.