We already knew that La La Land was one of the biggest films of 2016. Having performed incredibly well at the Golden Globes, the musical — already considered a classic, even though it hasn't yet left the box office — is now tied for the record number of Oscar nominations. Most dramatically, though, it faces stiff competition for the category of Best Song.
You see, La La Land is competing with itself.
We're talking about a musical so good, that not only did one of its songs wind up being nominated for an Oscar - two of them have been nominated. It's an outstanding performance, and a testimony to the film's brilliance. Let's take a look at the songs:
"City of Stars"
The constant refrain of La La Land, "City of Stars" opens with Ryan Gosling's beautiful singing. It recurs through the movie, playing in different styles and tones, tugging at our heartstrings. There's a very real sense in which this is the song of Hollywood, exploring the reality of what it means to live with a dream of stardom.
Early on in the movie's production, Justin Hurwitz and Damian Chazelle were "dating" lyricists, trying to find the right team. The lyricists were given a melody, and tasked to write the lyrics — and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul came up with "City of Stars" as a result. As Hurwitz told the Los Angeles Times:
“Damien and I didn’t know what the song was going to be about. We didn’t know what the words were with the lyrical hook. We didn’t have a title, just a melody. Just the way those words flowed over that melody, it was perfect.”
The composition is hopeful and elegant, but carries an underlying sense of melancholy. Hurwitz deliberately spins between major and minor, representing the great moments of life and the moments of heartache and pain; this gives the song an emotional vitality, one that's perfectly fitting to the ongoing story. Little wonder "City of Stars" became the emotional refrain, revisited throughout the film.
Where "City of Stars" can be likened to the film's lifeblood, running through the whole movie, "Audition" is the heart. Everything has led to this moment; every decision, every choice, every crisis of faith, has brought Emma Stone's Mia to this audition. Everything rests upon it; she's not asked to perform. She's asked to tell a story. And she does so; and in so doing, she strips Mia's soul bare, exposing the dreamer within, captivating the audience as we come to understand the purpose that causes her heart to beat. In narrative terms, this is the pivotal scene, upon which the whole film stands or falls.
In actual fact, according to composer Justin Hurwitz, this was the last song they made for the film. Where the others were a struggle, this flowed naturally, expressing his own frequent frustrations as an artist. There's a beautiful shift from speech to song, as Mia loses herself in the narrative and we become captured by the beauty of the moment.
Discussing the song with Song Exploder, Hurwitz explains how he uses the music to create emotional dissonance, with each piano-note carefully chosen to add emotional weight.
"I think it helps it feel emotionally complex and unsettled. I go for so much movement in general because that's the case for people's emotions. People's emotions are constantly changing. You can feel a hundred things in under a second. I like the music to have all these different feelings in it. If I just grabbed a triad and stuck with it for the whole measure, it would be a few seconds of feeling the same thing, which I don't think is how people feel."
"Audition" is beautifully optimistic, but it also carried such a real sense of emotional pain and baggage to it. For Hurwitz, this was the song of the film; when La La Land was first being developed, he was one of the visionaries, one of the dreamers, and nobody would get on board for the movie. There's a strange sense in which he, too, lived the journey of this song; which is probably what gives it such tremendous power.
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Even though La La Land hasn't left the global box office yet, it's already become a classic, and one of the most dearly-loved musicals of all time. I pity the judges making the choice between "City of Stars" and "Audition" — and I have to be honest that I feel sorry for the other films competing in this #Oscars category! For me, though, I think "Audition" is the true stand-out; the emotional climax of the film, it's a thing of beauty without which the movie as a whole simply wouldn't work. We'll soon see whether or not the judges agree with me — but in the meantime, what do you think?