La La Land in Concert: VSO at the Movies

Date and Venue Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 7pm | Orpheum Theatre

Conductor Erik Ochsner Programme Musical soundtrack of the film La La Land; score and songs by Justin Hurwitz

Reviewer John Jane

For Maestro Erik Ochsner’s fiftieth live concert version of La La Land, he brought a few guest jazz musicians including Randy Kerber on piano who is featured on the original soundtrack (no, it’s not Ryan Gosling). In his introductory remarks, the Finnish-American conductor stated “the real star of the show is the piano.” Certainly, from the piano solo in the Overture to Justin Hurwitz’ jazzy syncopation in the recurring “Mia & Sebastian's Theme,” Randy Kerber’s artistry on the ivories is prominently featured.

The film itself starts with gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway. From a cacophony of dense traffic comes an audacious song-and-dance tune. That first song, one of many compositions written expressly for the film by Justin Hurwitz is called “Another Day of Sun.” What follows this exuberant opening scene is a kind of bittersweet Hollywood heart over ambition story (spoiler alert: in this story it’s ambition that wins).

La La Land, really a quaint nickname for Los Angeles, implying a dreamy state of mind slightly detached from the real world, is a musical romantic-comedy. And since it’s set in L.A. the romance is between two beautiful people: Mia, an aspiring actress and Sebastian, a jazz pianist (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling).

Mia and Sebastian are, in a sense, throwbacks from the Hollywood legacy left behind by the likes of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in the fifties. But where Kelly and Charisse were dancers who learned to act, the opposite is true for Gosling and Stone who are good actors who have learned to dance – their singing falls a little short. Nothing typifies this more than the charmingly effervescent “A Lovely Night” that illustrates the chemistry between Mia and Sebastian. It’s arguably the most retro song in the movie. At the opposite end, “Someone in the Crowd” as sung by Stone and roomies Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe steps outside the narrative entirely and into the realm of music video.

The film that the audience sees up on a giant screen is an audio-stripped version – save for the vocal tracks – which seem to be amplified. Although not every note in the film’s soundtrack (in this case) is played by the live orchestra. For obvious reasons the synth-pop song “Take on me” we hear is the celluloid version.

Maestro Ochsner must take responsibility for not only leading the orchestra, but also ensuring that the orchestration is precisely synchronized with the action seen on screen. This was achieved without even a nano-second separating the two elements.

If you had only previously seen this film streamed on your television at home, you would almost surely discover a heightened experience with certain scenes. In Mia’s fantasy sequence near the end is given grandiose treatment with the bombastic “Epilogue.”

The orchestra played right through to the end, so I didn’t see anyone sneaking out while the credits were rolling. At the end of the performance, Erik Ochsner brought Randy Kerber to the centre stage to receive appreciative applause from the audience.

Taking in a concert and a movie together is a great way to spend Saturday night.

© 2018 John Jane