Film: La La Land
Song: City of Stars
Bottom Line: Great prop, great jazz song, but it just doesn’t belong in a musical like this.
La La Land and Jazz Music: Why “City of Stars” Sounds so Weird
I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend better versed in musical theatre than I will ever be. As our conversations often go, I tried to keep up with the various theatre references, nodded along (metaphorically, over facebook chat) when she made a point I agreed with, and made my usual furrowed-brow, head cocked to the side look when she started talking about La La Land. I’m not an expert on musicals, and probably caught a small fraction of the references that La La Land makes in scripting, editing, and cinematography to old-school Hollywood films. The exchange that caught my attention, however, was our back-and-forth about “City of Stars” arguably the central song in the film (and I use the word film here with intent: the whole production was shot on old-school 35mm film).
In the kind of discussion where I’m so obviously out-paced by my friend’s depth of knowledge, I admit that I tend to latch on to the small pieces of the discussion I actually understand. This is probably why I felt compelled to make the case that “City of Stars” is a textbook jazz song, even if it’s a truly ridiculous theme for a musical. So lets’s spend just a moment talking about what makes a song good for a musical, and what makes a song good as a piece of jazz.
Music, in an integrated musical, is supposed to advance the plot. Central themes and recurrent musical phrases are supposed to let the audience know what the characters are thinking in a plot-relevant way. “Remember that scene from Act 1 where we sang this tune?” songs late in the musical seem to say, “that’s what the characters are remembering too.” Music then, in this sense, has at least a double purpose. First, it’s supposed to tie together pieces of the musical that audiences might not connect intuitively without instrumentation-provided help. Second, it’s supposed to push the plot forward in some way. [It’s worth pointing out, of course, that music is often used to advance the audience’s understanding of a character, but we can set this aside since “City of Stars” isn’t proving us essential non-accessible-through-dialogue information about any of the characters.] At first glance, “City of Stars” doesn’t operate in any of these ways in La La Land.
Let’s start by looking at plot-advancement. La La Land admittedly doesn’t have much in the way of plot-driving musical numbers. The mark of a good integrated musical may very well be that one can listen to the soundtrack and understand the plot, but La La Land is near incomprehensible from the soundtrack alone. Central moments of conflict, character development, and resolution are supposed to be illustrated musically. This isn’t the case for La La Land. You really do have to see the film to follow the plot. There are a few songs (towards the beginning) that really are well-integrated with the plot, but the trend is short-lived. “Someone in the Crowd” and “A Lovely Night” really do seem to tie together the jazzy feel of the film with the plot while advancing the action in-song. This kind of plot-through-music makes it easy to understand how the characters feel, what’s going on in the scene, and the significance of the plot point even in the absence of non-musical dialogue or visual cues. These songs usually have a single use and are tied to a specific plot-point that may be echoed later, but is almost never reiterated in the same way twice. By contrast, central themes like “City of Stars” seem to be doing something a little different in the musical though.
“City of Stars” doesn’t really do anything to advance the plot. It’s not tied to some action, it doesn’t introduce new characters, and it doesn’t resolve conflict in an action-oriented way. Originally, it serves as an insight into the mentality of the characters. In this way, “City of Stars” does its job in informing the audience of something that’s going on that they could’ve have understood otherwise, but it’s not strictly plot-related. So perhaps the song isn’t intended to advance the plot? Instead it might be that it serves a different purpose, to connect otherwise disparate scenes with musical repetition.
Now let’s move on to thematic interpretation. While “City of Stars” is repeated throughout the musical, on the count of thematic recollection, it also seems to fail. The problem here is that while the song does a fantastic job illustrating what the characters are thinking, the audience doesn’t hear it unless the characters are explicitly thinking about that song again. It doesn’t give the viewer any new information that they couldn’t have gleaned in a different manner. Because “City of Starts” is the result of a plot-point, and not a meta-plot descriptor, the audience doesn’t have access to it when the characters aren’t thinking about it. In this way, it may as well be a visual cue for the audience. The same kind of recollection the audience is supposed to engage in could be achieved with the sheet music, or a different prop altogether. The song wasn’t crafted to have the kind of theme that’s easily integrated into other songs (or background music) dropping subtle hints to the audience that there’s more connection between two scenes than meets the eye (in a literal sense). The song is treated more like a prop than a song from a musical. Try this: imagine that La La Land was about an aspiring author opening a coffee shop instead of jazz. Could you replace “City of Stars” with a book instead of a song? I think you could, and for that reason I thin it’s better understood as a prop than a real piece of music integral to the musical. It shows up on occasion, the characters interact with it, and then it goes back on the metaphorical shelf. What it shows the audience is less to do with its emotional content or thematic register and more to do with how it lets the characters interact with their environment (their audio environment as well as the physical one).
Now let’s think about what makes a good jazz song. My go-to jazz song for years now has been “Three Blind Mice” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It starts with a baseline that just screams out for the audience to start tapping their foot in time with the music. Then, in some of the heaviest swing Art Blakey indulges in, the whole band plays the theme. It’s immediately recognizable. The song is distorted from its original iteration as a children’s song but still understandable to the whole audience. After the theme is introduced and repeated, it’s time for the solos. The solos all do their job of playing with the theme to the point of breaking and bring it back home. That’s what hard bop is about. Growing out of bebop the tradition of hard bop took the elements of bebop (pioneered to a large extent by Charlie Parker) and integrated traditional gospel elements of call and response, heavier swing, and more of a playful feel. In essence, what hard bop did was take a profoundly intellectual approach to jazz (beobop) and made it the kind of music you could tap your foot to. This kind of thematic statement followed by variation is arguably a unifying theme of all jazz, however, and sets a standard against which we can measure individual songs. Does the song have the kind of theme that stands up to variation? Does it have a statement of the theme before variation? Does it have the kind of structure a performer can solo on top of? I think “City of Stars” holds up to this analysis.
“City of Stars” has all the elements of textbook jazz that you’d expect to find. It has a central tune, tempo variations appropriate to the content, and even the kind of thematic variation you’d expect to find in band-backed solos. The tricky part of writing a good jazz song is writing a tune that’s easy enough for the audience to recognize without making it so simple that the band can’t do anything interesting with it. The point of hard bop jazz, the kind of jazz that La La Land seems aimed at (big-band jazz notwithstanding), is to give the band a tune and let them run with it until it’s barely recognizable. While it’s true that an audience well-versed in the language of jazz can follow a wider range of thematic manipulation than the ordinary viewer, great jazz songs typically have an easy-to-follow theme that can take a lot of variation before it becomes incomprehensible. [Listen to A Night in Tunisia, also by Blakey. The central theme starts at 1:29 and runs pretty much through to the solo at 2:13. It’s clearly recognizable at 7:54-59 where it starts again.] “City of Stars” has such an easily recognizable theme that it’s easy for the audience to recognize when it pops back up, and follow what the musicians do with it. In this sense, it succeeds as a jazz song.
The one issue the audience might face is the implementation of a bridge in “City of Stars.” That up-beat, non-syncopated section of the song about 2/3rds of the way through. It’s a little out of place in a real jazz song, but the introduction of the theme immediately afterwards that would be recognizable with or without the lyrics on top puts the song squarely in the jazz camp for me. It’s a kind of jazz song in waiting, a tune without a solo yet. What makes it different from the other songs in the film, however, is that it doesn’t just act like a prop, it doesn’t just forward the plot. It’s an out of place tune that seems like it’s being shoehorned into the action when it just needs a little room to breathe. Importantly, however, the writers of a jazz song are really only there to provide a solid foundation, a tune that performers can riff on and manipulate. A jazz song that’s supposed to sound like bebop or hard bop that doesn’t have a live performance to back it up is just a sad play-through of the central phrasing. That seems to be where “City of Stars” falls in the musical. It’s crying out for a live recording, a few really good musicians to play a solo or two or three. It’s unmistakably a great theme, it’s just waiting for the right improvisation.
At a meta-level, the purpose of a jazz song’s theme and the purpose of a musical’s central theme are quite similar. Both are supposed to tie the artwork together, both are supposed to help the audience follow along in the absence of other thematic continuity. The problem, in my mind, was how La La Land used the music (“City of Stars” in particular) as a prop rather than a meta-element. If the music had continually floated above the plot, or continually driven the plot themes could have been reintroduced without explicit plot elements to drive its reintegration. This kind of subtle reiteration of a theme is useful to help the audience connect scenes when the dialogue doesn’t. La La Land, in its attempt to integrate the music as a plot-element rather than a plot-forwarding device put the musical score in an awkward position. It wasn’t disconnected enough from the plot to allow for subtle reintegration, and it wasn’t connected enough to allow for thematic manipulation without upsetting the plot-music balance. What La La Land needed was a clear distinction between plot-driving musical numbers and background music. The awkward in-between that music seemed to occupy instead left really good songs in the lurch, stuck between thematic illustration and real use in jazz’s tradition of interpretation and improvisation. “City of Stars” has potential, but it either needs to be part of the plot or left aside for interesting interpretation and reinvention, not stuck in the limbo of musical props.
–Thanks go to my friend Casey, the musical theatre genius, who provided inspiration for this topic in conversation as well as her editing skills to the rough-draft.