La La Land: The apotheosis not just of Hollywood musicals, but of Hollywood music

Jazz pianist Geoffrey Smith takes a look at La La Land, and sees it as merely the latest, greatest example of the symbiosis between music and film which is as old as cinema itself.

From the earliest days of film, music and movies have been inseparable, creating a kind of symbiosis between what’s seen and what’s heard. The film industry has always recognised this, which it why it’s placed such a high value on its musical element, striving to enhance the motions of life represented on the screen by the myriad passions of the soundtrack.

You couldn’t have a more vivid demonstration of the union between the two genres than the current mega-hit La La Land, which is a kind of apotheosis not just of the Hollywood musical, but of Hollywood music. From the very beginning, the pulsating, infinitely varied soundtrack is a current of emotional energy, carrying the action forward and enriching it at every turn.

Ryan Gosling’s aspiring pianist places jazz at the centre of the story and that joyous sophistication gives La La Land its true rhythm, the buoyant swing that connects it to the carefree world of Singin’ in the Rain and which the film’s exuberant art proves is no mere exercise in nostalgia, but alive now, filling the screen with the hopeful passion of youth.

‘Mark the music,’ as Shakespeare said, and the musical life of La La Land is irresistible, on its own or erupting into dance. Although some traditionalists have found the ending disappointing, as boy does not wind up with girl – in the time-honoured fashion of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds – it seemed to make perfect sense in a film in which the music reigns.

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The last thing we hear before the credits roll is Mr Gosling’s pianist counting off the next tune and, as a former jazz musician, that’s fine with me.

At their best, movie and music become one, a single experience gripping the eyes and ears of the audience, so that they’re perceived as a unity, an emotional whole lifting the viewer-listeners out of themselves into a heightened reality.

That said, film music needs no special pleading – even when standing alone. Its distinction is well established, reflected in its acceptance and status in the classical-music record charts and concert halls as well as in theatres, where well-loved movies have been reincarnated on stage, driven by the spell of their original scores. The classic dance film The Red Shoes, for instance, is touring the country as an actual ballet, choreographed by Matthew Bourne and incorporating Hollywood legend Bernard Hermann’s magnificent music.

In London, the combination of film and live music, or film music on its own, has become a regular presence at the South Bank (020–7960 4200;, neatly fitting into its multiple sequences and themes. On February 14, its ‘Film Scores Live’ season offers romantics a perfect Valentine’s Day occasion with a showing of the immortal weepie Brief Encounter, accompanied by the London Philarmonic Orchestra and preceded by a complete performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, whose yearning strains dominate the movie’s soundtrack.

On the 25th, in ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’, the BBC Concert Orchestra presents Music to Die For, scenes from stage and screen with a spiritual resonance, including excerpts from Four Weddings and a Funeral and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, followed on March 19 with From Heaven to Hell at the Movies, with stirring orchestral and choral excerpts, among them Prokofiev’s famous Battle on the Ice from Alexander Nevsky.

One special area of film music that may be overlooked, but which has been central to the history of cinema is its role in silent movies. Lacking a verbal component in the on-screen drama, music became crucial in providing an aural dimension, in the playing of a live pianist or ensemble. There’s still a particular charm in watching a silent movie accompanied on the spot by a pianist either improvising or playing from a score and that vintage experience is available in the Barbican’s current series of ‘Silent Films and Live Music’ (020–7638 8891;

Among the works on offer are a double bill by the master comedian Buster Keaton, on March 5, followed on the 25th by a remarkable world premiere: the first performance of Shostakovich’s piano score for the 1929 Russian film The New Babylon, suppressed in its original form by the Soviet authorities.

Meanwhile, Saffron Hall, the elegant performance centre in Saffron Walden, Essex, is re-creating a special thrill of silent cinema, a film accompanied by full orchestra: Douglas Fairbanks’s dashing version of Robin Hood, from 1922, with a new score by Neil Brand, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on February 25 (0845 548 7650;

Geoffrey Smith