Widely regarded as one of the most popular movies of 2016, La La Land follows the love story of a struggling musician and an aspiring actress. The subject of much hype, the movie has received critical acclaim and garnered numerous awards since its release in December. Its soundtrack, written by film composer Justin Hurwitz, also collected great praise, winning two Academy Awards and two Golden Globes as well as the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Film Music.
The soundtrack may be pleasant upon first listen, with catchy musical numbers and lush orchestration, but it ultimately sounds boring and brings little new to the table.
“Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” the third song on the soundtrack, is arguably the most famous. The tune contains a beautiful and touching melody, but almost every scene with Mia and Sebastian, the two protagonists, features it with little variation. The song soon becomes repetitive, and by the end of the movie, predictable. This constant replay makes the soundtrack seem lazily, rather than cohesively, composed.
Similarly, the sixth track, “City of Stars,” includes just one simple piano motif—a short musical idea or fragment—making the minute-and-a-half-long song monotonous and exhausting to listen to. Furthermore, its lyrics are cliché. “City of stars / Are you shining just for me?” actor Ryan Gosling sings.
We’ve all heard enough songs about finding love in a big city, the overused theme that this tune explores. Sure, the track may sound pretty, but was it really groundbreaking enough to deserve an Academy Award for Best Original Song? I think not.
Critics have especially commended the jazzy feel of “Herman’s Habit,” the fifth track. In a review for pop culture website The Young Folks, critic Reagan Harrison wrote that “Multiple genres—most prominently jazz—and musical stylings collide to create a masterpiece of a soundtrack” and that “its likes haven’t been seen for a while.”
But the idea of combining jazz and other musical styles is not particularly new. Broadway hits ranging from On the Town, Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical adapted for film five years later, to Chicago, a 1975 show scored by John Kander and remade as a crime comedy film in 2002, integrated jazz into their scores. So did Porgy and Bess, a 1934 folk opera composed by George Gershwin and adapted for film in 1959. It’s odd to give Hurwitz credit for this common technique.
Hurwitz’s inclusion of jazz in the soundtrack is superficial at best. Most of the songs in the movie only include run-of-the-mill jazz melodies stitched together with bland instrumentals and clichéd vocals to create an unoriginal and uninteresting pastiche. Hurwitz uses standard jazz instrumentation and a narrow range of harmonies that can appeal to a wide audience but capture none of the depth and complexity of this diverse and vibrant art form.
That said, La La Land’s soundtrack does have appeal. The music is catchy, easy on the ears, and simple to sing along to. But it is unoriginal.
The soundtrack really is not worth all the hype.