“Asking what makes a great love song is rather like asking what makes a great poem,” says acclaimed music director and producer Marius de Vries. “You look for something that’s evocative; for words that explode with meaning outside of their immediate context; for an emotional precision but, at the same time, a universal application. But it’s fundamentally a great mystery – you just know it when you hear it.” When it comes to decoding the power of a song, few are better equipped than De Vries, who as a producer has worked with the likes of Björk, David Bowie, P.J. Harvey and Rufus Wainwright, as a composer co-wrote the score for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet, and as a music director coordinated the soundtracks for Moulin Rouge! and most recently La La Land. Sunday saw American director Damien Chazelle’s magical ode to the classic Hollywood musical scoop five BAFTAs, including Best Film and Best Film Music for composer Justin Hurwitz. (“I’m feeling a little worse for wear,” de Vries admits, over the phone from his Soho home, the morning after the ceremony.)
The soundtrack took a year to coordinate with De Vries working full-time, in collaboration with Chazelle and Hurwitz, lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and the film’s producers, to “develop all of the music that needed to be filmed, which was the majority of it, and get it to a standard where it was creatively and sonically inspiring enough to shoot.” This involved re-enacting scenes to make sure that the pace and length of each piece of music was spot-on, de Vries explains, as well as working closely with the film’s leading actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, to perfect their performances and ensure that the songs corresponded, in key and cadence, to the characters they had created. The film tells the story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a jazz pianist, whose passion for their respective arts is rivalled only by their adoration of each other. It is a poignant reflection on love and ambition – whether the two can exist in harmony, or if one must be sacrificed to attain the other – while its music is what De Vries dubs a “heartfelt homage” to golden age Hollywood, but with a more subtle modernity relevant to its 21st-century setting.
“The primary purpose of a film’s soundtrack is to serve the director in his storytelling endeavour,” the music director explains, “and if it stands up outside of the context of the movie, that’s an added bonus.” The La La Land score, it’s safe to say, does both. So how would de Vries describe Chazelle’s narrative approach? “Damien has a laser-like singleness of purpose: he looks at the subject through a single, very powerful lens. He’s the polar opposite to Baz Luhrmann, whose approach is naturally more variegated and eclectic. Baz looks at the subject from a bewildering amount of different perspectives that somehow synthesise into one symphonic whole. But they both imagine a world very thoroughly in advance and have a great ability to communicate that with the people they’re working with so that everyone inhabits the same parallel universe.” In the case of both directors, this visionary practice has resulted in some of the most beloved cinematic love stories of our time, elevated by De Vries’ ear for empathetic musical accompaniment. Here, in honour of Valentine’s Day, the London-born creative has compiled an alternative romantic playlist for our delectation, spanning Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Björk, Bowie, and of course some jazz, courtesy of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
The La La Land soundtrack is available now.