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The divisiveness of responses khổng lồ La La Land has become a story in itself, culminating at Sunday’s Oscars with a mistaken Best Picture win that was ultimately handed over khổng lồ true winner Moonlight while seemingly staging in real time critics’ và audiences’ enduring ambivalence lớn the film. Regardless of the merits of La La Land’s direction và acting, though, there is one Osoto this ode to lớn old Hollywood movie musicals deserved wholeheartedly — the Best Original Song trophy it took trang chủ for “City of Stars.”


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“City of Stars” may not be La La Land’s catchiest or most exuberant number, & the other La La Land tuy vậy nominated for an Osoto, “Audition (Fools Who Dream),” is arguably more emotionally moving. But “City of Stars” has become La La Land’s de faclớn theme tuy vậy because it’s the tuy vậy most central to lớn the film’s overarching ideas; it’s the movie in microcosm. This carefully constructed musical number collapses La La Land’s entire plot inkhổng lồ a two-and-a-half-minute duet by using techniques borrowed equally from old Hollywood and Romantic opera.

“City of Stars” reflects La La Land’s narrative through a classic lyrical arc

Sung as a duet by the film’s leads, jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) và aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), “City of Stars” appears about halfway through the film và serves to lớn establish the bond between the film’s protagonists. La La Land’s narrative hinges on whether its lovestruông chồng Angelenos will choose each other over their respective ambitions. This central question — of whether head-over-heels romance can be reconciled with the individualistic drive sầu needed khổng lồ succeed in Hollywood — runs through the lyrics of “City of Stars.”

Composed by Justin Hurwitz, with words by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “City of Stars” employs a standby khung from the golden age of movie musicals: the 32-bar, or AABA, song khung. This neat asymmetrical form, where each section of a song is exactly the same length, dominated musicals of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, scaffolding scores of songs from “Over the Rainbow” lớn “Singing in the Rain.”


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The AABA form proved so effective in musicals because of its convenient dramatic structure, allowing composers khổng lồ A) establish a main theme, A) reinforce it, B) contrast it with new melodic and lyrical material, và then A) return to lớn it.

The A sections of “City of Stars” focus on the difficulty of forging connections in the modern metropolis of Los Angeles. There’s a certain deliberate ambiguity as khổng lồ whether Sebastian và Mia are singing about each other, or about their careers: “City of stars / Are you shining just for me?” Is that a plea for love sầu in a lonely place, or a gọi for individual recognition from an unforgiving đô thị & its creative industries?


The meaning becomes clearer in the song’s contrasting B section, as the piano accompaniment moves lớn a bright, major-key harmony and the lyrics express a romantic yearning in crystalline terms: “A look in somebody’s eyes / To light up the skies / To open the world & send me reeling.”


But the clarity is short-lived.

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The final A section returns khổng lồ the uncertain, minor-key piano accompaniment và then surprises with an abrupt ending, halfway through the expected 16 bars, on the line, “City of stars / You never shined so brightly.”

Lyrically, it’s an optimistic sentiment khổng lồ over on, but Hurwitz, Pasek, and Paul use a clever structural feint lớn undercut the song’s hopeful ending, truncating the section before its natural resolution — a musical foreshadowing of what awaits Mia và Sebastian’s relationship.

“City of Stars” unites La La Land’s central themes through the use of leitmotif

Zooming out, the two arcs of La La Land’s plot — love & ambition — are given their own musical interplay in “City of Stars” through a technique called leitmotif, in which certain dramatic themes are given a kind of sonic signature.

Introduced by German composer Richard Wagner in his epic music dramas of the late 1800s, leitmotif took off in opera and quickly spread to the nascent world of film. John Williams’s score for Star Wars marks an excellent example of cinematic leitmotif, where he attaches musical themes lớn specific characters & moments in the film, themes that are repeated and repurposed throughout the series. In that same tradition, La La Land utilizes leitmotif khổng lồ musically delineate the paired themes of love sầu & ambition.

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We first hear the love motif in La La Land picked out by Sebastian in a dimly lit piano bar. Set in a lilting 3 phần tư time signature, this languorous, meandering theme perfectly captures the vertiginous state of suspended animation that often accompanies falling in love.


The other main leitmotif in La La Land is the ambition theme, first heard in the opening number “Another Day of Sun,” popping up again directly after in Mia’s tuy nhiên “Someone in the Crowd,” and then sporadically appearing through the rest of the film.


In contrast lớn the love theme, the ambition leitmotif features a 4/4 time signature, a driving rhythm, & a steadily ascending melody. In La La Land, this is the sound of perseverance, determination, và single-minded focus.

The love sầu ambition themes populate the film’s score, but neither appears in “City of Stars.” Or do they?

The brilliance of “City of Stars” lies in its subtle sublimation of the ambition theme inkhổng lồ the B section of “Stars.” It may not be immediately obvious, but layering the two themes on top of each other reveals how the “Stars” B section is essentially a recomposition of the ambition motif.


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“City of Stars” B section, showing original melody above, with ambition motif layered beneath. Nate Sloan This revelation proves somewhat distressing, as the major-key optimism of the B section of “City of Stars” appeared to lớn be the one moment of the tuy vậy that expressed an unequivocal giving-in lớn the “crazy feeling” of lãng mạn love. Recognizing that the score’s ambition motif is hiding surreptitiously in this exuberant section undercuts the force of Sebastian & Mia’s declaration. Their world may be opening up và the skies all aglow, but the ambition theme, lurking beneath like a palimpsest, tells viewers another story.

At once a single star và part of a larger constellation, “City of Stars” packs La La Land’s dramatic conflict into its every note and syllable, và that’s why it, above sầu all the other songs in the film, deserves lớn be the tuy nhiên forever associated with La La Land in the cultural memory.

Listen lớn a complete breakdown of the music from La La Land on the latest episode of Switched On Pop, featuring vinaanh.com’s Genevieve sầu Koski.

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Nate Sloan is a musicologist & co-host of Switched On Pop, a podcast about how popular music works.


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