Latin Music Week

'La La Land' Hits Telluride: What We Learned About the Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling Musical

Chris Willman
Emma Stone attends Telluride Film Festival 2016 

Also at the film fest: Janelle Monae makes her acting debut and John Mayer waxes philosophical on typewriters.

Much has already been written about the cinematic merits of the musical La La Land, which had its world premiere in Venice last week and its American bow at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. But mostly unaddressed so far: how are the la-las? The actual music, that is.

Based on a first look and listen in Telluride, there are two things audiences might want to keep in mind before the film opens to general audiences in December: First, the song score bears no resemblance to recent pop music as we know it, so don’t expect to hear any breakouts from the soundtrack showing up at radio. Second, and perhaps more surprising: The movie's songs don't resemble anything you’ve heard on Broadway or in the classic MGM musicals of yore.

Instead, director Damien Chazelle and his composer Justin Hurwitz have charted a third path: Jazzy. Very, very jazzy.  The songs skew closer to the feel of the music Michel Legrand created for the 1967 French musical The Young Girls of Rochefort than anything those young girls Garland, Reynolds, or Streisand ever sang on screen. 

Given that these were the guys behind Whiplash, it shouldn't be a complete shock that some of La La Land sounds like a score Miles Teller’s and J.K, Simmons’ characters could have collaborated on after cementing their buddyship in Whiplash II. It's a “show band” musical, if you will.

There are exceptions to that up-tempo, jazzy through line, though, including a lovely, classical-leaning piano piece Ryan Gosling’s character plays in the movie that recurs, along with a Gosling ballad, “City of Stars.” Hurwitz does finally go all MGM-y toward the end with the instrumental score for the non-vocal production number that takes up most of the last 15 minutes, a “dream ballet” in the style of a lot of wordless numbers that appeared in classic musicals like The Band Wagon and Carousel.

The major outlier is the final vocal number (which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film), “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” an overtly Sondheim-y ballad. It’s performed by Emma Stone in what appears to be one circling take, and it's the most obvious submission from the movie for a best song nomination, as well as the scene most likely to solidify Stone’s own awards nods. It’s also one of two moments in the film where the actors appear to be singing live (the other being a more casual segment where Stone and Gosling sit at the piano).

But the tone that audiences may take away most is the one established at the outset by “Another Day of Sun,” the multitudinous opening production number that takes place on the soaring overpass connecting the eastbound 105 to the northbound 110 in Los Angeles. You don’t just hear marimba players in this number -- the back of a truck opens to show a Latin band performing. That, and the second number “Someone in the Crowd," are both mostly performed by glorified extras with a line or two each, sounding more like they’re in the islands than in metro L.A. After that hyperactive opening stretch, though, no one does any singing but Stone and Gosling.

Well, with one curious exception: John Legend. Midway through the picture, Gosling’s jazz pianist gets a job with a band led by Legend, who is playing some sort of pop-jazz-fusion star. Never mind that that’s a job that doesn’t exist in the commercial landscape of 2016. Legend’s band plays a sort of George Benson-type R&B fusion that improbably drives young girls wild, and provides the opportunity for Gosling to sell out his principles by playing squiggly synth lines instead of piano bop.

At a Telluride seminar Monday afternoon, Chazelle explained the casting of Legend (the two met on the awards circuit when the director was pushing Whiplash and Legend was promoting his Selma song). “Ryan plays this pigheaded, stubborn guy who thinks he knows exactly what the music he wants to do is and is not gonna be swayed by anybody,” said Chazelle. “So we had to cast someone who we would buy who would sway Ryan Gosling -- who’s already somewhat charismatic -- to completely change his outlook. That’s what attracted me to the idea of casting an actual musician… somebody like John who could speak personally to some of the issues they talk about. The idea of: at what point does an art form become stagnant? John himself has gone through those arguments in his career, starting out as a much more independent/niche musician that only a few people knew about, and then getting bigger and bigger... There’s a scene where he kind of unloads on Sebastian and sets him straight, and none of that was written. That’s all just John talking. I had written some stuff, but it was nowhere near as good as John just saying his own opinions, and that’s what we ended up using in the film.”

Indeed, Legend’s improvised dialogue in the movie makes a pretty good case for bucking old-school jazz norms: “How you gonna save jazz if no one is interesting?” his character tells Gosling’s. “Jazz is dying because of people like you. You’re playing to 90-year-olds at the Lighthouse… You’re so obsessed with Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk. Those guys were revolutionaries. How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”

But it’s clear where the director’s heart is at when the song Legend goes on to play (“Start a Fire") sounds like ‘80s light jazz hokum and is clearly meant to represent Gosling selling out (if it doesn’t quite fall into the genre of deliberately bad movie songs). And there’s no mistaking that Gosling is speaking for the director and composer when he tells Stone that jazz is “dying on the vine, and the world says let it die, it had its time. Well, not on my watch.” At the club he wants to open, “We’re gonna play whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, as long as it’s pure jazz.”

Will La La Land capture the highly coveted jazz-movie-enthusiast demographic? That remains to be seen, but it might be less critical to the film’s fortunes than what people think about Stone's vocal abilities. For the record, she can sing, even if she’s channeling the struggling Sally Bowles (a character she played on Broadway just prior to filming La La Land) more than a vocally indomitable Fanny Brice. Gosling is just a little bit more of a stretch as a leading crooner, but makes up for any laggardness with some very convincing finger-synching… enough so that some Telluride viewers and even panel moderators were convinced he was doing all the piano performances on the soundtrack.

Outside of La La Land, there was plenty of jazz to go around at Telluride. World-premiering at the fest was the John Coltrane documentary Chasing Trane, which addresses the sax master’s demons but downplays them in favor of celebrating his art via a wall-to-wall soundtrack and testimonials from everyone from Sonny Rollins to Bill Clinton.

Elsewhere in the music realm, Janelle Monáe made her acting debut in one of the festival’s most acclaimed films, Moonlight, a coming-of-age drama about a young African-American coming to terms with his sexual orientation. Monae plays the good-hearted girlfriend of the gay-accepting drug dealer who decides to foster the boy’s growth, and the film allows fans to see what the singer would have looked like if she had come of age in the Janet Jackson era.

Another musician seen onscreen at Telluride: John Mayer. He wasn't singing, playing, or acting, but showing up at length as an interviewee in the documentary California Typewriter to attest to his obsession with the manual typewriter, which Mayer sees as a means of fostering and documenting lyrical creativity.