Achieving a naturalistic sound on a Hollywood film set isn’t easy — but was central to director Damien Chazelle’s vision for La La Land.
Unless you have spent the last few months lost in the jungle, you will know that La La Land has become the biggest movie in a very long time. The brainchild of director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, the musical has, at the time of writing, won a record-breaking seven Golden Globe Awards and garnered a record-equalling 14 Academy Award nominations. Sales of the soundtrack album have also snowballed, taking it to the top of the UK album chart and to number two in the US. The virtuoso opening scene, in which hundreds of dancers and singers strut their stuff in a huge traffic jam on a sun-drenched LA freeway overpass, accompanied by an infectious Latin jazz track, has already become iconic.
La La Land traces the fortunes and misfortunes of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), as they try to balance the pursuit of their professional dreams with the needs of their romantic relationship. Both the visuals and the music are to a significant degree a homage not only to Hollywood musicals from the ’40s and ’50s, but to the romanticism of the French New Wave musicals of Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand. The narrative and visualisations move gradually from the primary-coloured and idealised to the gritty and realistic, resulting in an emotionally affecting ending that does not conform to the Hollywood feel-good stereotype.
A major factor in the movie’s strong emotional impact is that the jazz-flavoured soundtrack favours the gritty and realistic over Hollywood schmaltz and smoothness. In the quest for authenticity and emotional honesty, the on-screen musicians and actors had to look and sound 100 percent convincing, and one obvious but technically complicated way of achieving that was to record as much of the singing live on set as possible. Executive music producer Marius de Vries and music engineer and mixer Nicholai Baxter faced many challenges during the movie’s two-year gestation, and there were times when recording, post and mix sessions required extreme working schedules of 16 hours a day, with some DAW sessions ballooning to Pro Tools' maximum of 768 voices.
“The recording and mixing sessions were among the most intense and complex I have ever done,” recalls de Vries. “Everyone was pushed to extremes. Nick hardly slept for the last six months! Damien has such an eye and ear for detail. The tiniest vibraphone note that was played too soft or too hard, or with the wrong mallet, had the potential to bring the whole thing down. Add the many on-set recordings, Damien’s tendency to shoot in long, unbroken takes, and the complexity of much of the orchestration, and it meant that the music tech involved was extreme.”
De Vries is talking from his Berry Drive studio, in the Arts District of downtown LA. Originally from London, de Vries actually enjoyed a brief spell in the 1980s writing for Sound On Sound, and also played keyboards in the Blow Monkeys. In the early 1990s he became renowned as a programmer and producer, and he has since worked with the likes of Björk, Annie Lennox, David Bowie, U2, Madonna, Robbie Robertson, Rufus Wainwright and countless others. De Vries’ first foray into movie soundtracks came with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and he later went on to become music director of the same filmmaker’s Moulin Rouge (2001). As soundtrack work came to be his staple, he moved to the US in 2010, where he worked on movies like Kick-Ass (2010), Sucker Punch (2011) and George Lucas’s animated fairytale musical Strange Magic (2014).
In April 2014, de Vries was invited to a meeting with Damien Chazelle, after an introduction via a mutual friend. “I met with Damien and the two original producers for the movie, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, as well as Justin. We very quickly found that we had a common musical language and understanding, and I was the first crew member they hired for the project. I worked on the movie pretty much full-time for two years, though later in the process in some rare moments of down time I produced Rufus Wainwright’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets album, and made some progress with a forthcoming jazz-influenced album for Chrissie Hynde.
“The direction of La La Land, visually, thematically and musically, was very much in Damien’s head when I first met him, and Justin also already had written a significant amount of the music and had gotten a head start with the orchestration. It was always Justin’s ambition to orchestrate the whole thing, which is one of several great stories about this movie: how he managed as someone relatively inexperienced, particularly at this level, to single-handedly orchestrate the music to such an impressive degree. He was working with an old...
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