Sir Mix-A-Lot: Interview with Oscar-winning sound mixer Andy Nelson

By Jedd Jong

Filmmakers strive to create an immersive experience, to give viewers a chance to step into carefully crafted realities that they can get lost in. Whether it’s an alien world, a distant period in history or a dizzying musical fantasy-scape, sound is an element that is often overlooked in creating this immersion. Every film crew includes sound recordists, designers, mixers, composers and editors who ensure that the audience hears exactly what they should.

Andy Nelson is a re-recording mixer with over four decades of experience under his belt. Growing up in London, Nelson’s career in the industry began at age 16, when he was a projectionist at a local cinema. He then moved into sound mixing for TV and movies, working on films like Schindler’s List, The Thin Red Line, X-Men, Moulin Rouge!, Star Trek (2009), Les Misérables and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Nelson has garnered a staggering 21 Oscar nominations, and won for Saving Private Ryan and Les Misérables. At the 88th Academy Awards, Nelson was nominated for two separate films in the same year, Bridge of Spies and The Force Awakens. He has mixed for directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, J.J. Abrams and Terence Malick.

Nelson was in Singapore as one of the invited guests of the Disney Storytelling+ Bootcamp, joining others who have worked behind-the-scenes in film and television to share their expertise with a new generation of filmmakers and storytellers. Nelson spoke about an emotional moment he experienced working on Schindler’s List, how different musicals require varying approaches to sound mixing, the differences between John Williams and Hans Zimmer’s methods of film scoring and his work on Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story.

JEDD: You have an illustrious list of credits. To the average moviegoer, they think of “sound” as just one element, but there are so many categories within that. There’s music, Foley, sound design, re-recording, sound mixing, ADR. Can you break it down for us and take us through what your job entails?

ANDY NELSON: I normally work with a partner. I handled all the music and the dialogue myself, and the other mixer handles the sound effects, but between us, we have to craft the tracks. I usually start with the dialogue and I try and make sure everything is perfectly clear and clean and the best it can be from the performance point of view, then I usually craft the music into that. When the composer’s written all the score, you assume you’re going to need all the music that’s been written, then we put the sound effects into that.

Then, once all the components are in, a little bit like a recipe, then we start to blend it and mix it together and pick our moments through each scene. Is this a strong sound effects moment? Is this a strong music moment? Should there be any sound at all? Silence is pretty powerful as well. We work in tandem, obviously with the director all the time, to design the track the way he or she wants it to be.

From left: Ron Judkins, Andy Nelson, Steven Spielberg, Bradley Cooper, Mark Ulano and Gary Rydstrom at the 2019 Cinema Audio Society Awards

Many elements of filmmaking require a balance of creativity and technical mastery. How do you achieve that balance with regards to sound mixing? 

NELSON: The way I approach it is I have to know what I’m doing from a technical standpoint, but I never want to let that get in the way of telling the story. Sometimes you just do something that maybe technically isn’t the right thing to do, but if it works, it works. One of the things you have to do as the mixer when you create the final soundtrack is you have to create a trust between you and the director, because they’re putting their baby into your hands, essentially. One of the things I’ve never wanted to do is let the technology get in the way, or make them feel that I would say “no, we can’t do that because…” I treat it much more as a creative process for that reason.

Avatar

Over the years, you’ve worked with directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, JJ Abrams, Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. How much are directors typically involved in the process of sound design, mixing and re-recording?

NELSON: Oh, heavily, very heavily. Somebody like Jim Cameron on Avatar, he would allow us to do our pass and get us into shape, but then when he came in and sat down and wanted to start, then we would roll our sleeves up and get to work. He would be very pinpoint precision, laser-sharp about what should happen at this moment, how that sound should be at that moment. With Steven, I’ve done 18 films with Steven so we have shorthand between us that’s pretty good nowadays. I get a first pass at the entire movie and then he’ll come and sit with me and we’ll work through it together.

Schindler’s List

As a fanboy, I have to ask, do you have any memorable Steven Spielberg stories? 

NELSON: Gosh. I’ll tell you a story about when I was working on a scene on Schindler’s List, a very complicated scene we were doing. I played it to him and I finished playing and I put the lights up. He was sitting right next to me. He had tears rolling down his face and he said “I don’t know what I would do to change this, so let’s move on.” It was a very important moment for me because it told me so much about him as a director. It wasn’t that I had done an incredible sound mix or anything, it was just that the scene was working and as a director, that’s all he wants, for the scene to work the way he imagines. For me, that’s a master storyteller at work. As a director, he could’ve said “let’s go through it again ten more times or 50 more times,” but he was so precise in what he wanted and it achieved what he wanted on an emotional level. I’ll never forget it. It was only my second film with him. I’m going to be doing West Side Story with him next year; that will be my 19th film. I hope it continues.

Steve Pederson, Steven Spielberg, Michael Kahn, Andy Nelson and Scott Millan, on the mixing stage for Schindler’s List

I think it was Marco Beltrami who said “befriend the sound mixer so music gets placed louder in the mix than sound effects.” What is it like determining what gets priority in the mix; who decides that? 

NELSON: We all kind of chip in, really. I’m handling the music physically myself, I happen to love music, it’s one of the reasons I got into it in the first place, was falling in love with what music does to visuals, it just took me to places in my mind and it still does today. I’m a defender of music, but I feel that music is overused in movies nowadays. I think that sometimes there’s too much score – I’m the first to put my hand up and suggest “Do we need it here? Is it coming in at the right point emotionally? Does it connect with the story correctly?” I’m definitely always trying to advocate to make the music work, but I’d be the first to say if it’s not working, we shouldn’t be using it.

Leading on from that, I wanted to talk specifically about musicals. You worked on Moulin Rouge!, Les Misérables, La La Land and you’re going to be working on West Side Story. Each of those movies is quite different from the others, even though they’re all musicals. What was the approach to the sound of Moulin Rouge!, Les Misérables and La La Land

Moulin Rouge!

NELSON: They were all completely different. First of all, Moulin Rouge!, you’re dealing with Baz Luhrmann. Baz Luhrmann is the most incredible creative director you could imagine. He spins with ideas constantly. His films are so richly layered that it took us weeks just to dig through and find all the little moments that worked in the way he wanted to tell that story. It was an incredibly complicated soundtrack to mix.

Les Misérables

Jump forward to Les Misérables, that was a completely revolutionary film in the sense that they recorded everything live. That took a tremendous amount of organisation. Tom Hooper started talking to me months before they started shooting about the approach and how we’d have to paint microphones out digitally and how the set had to be much quieter than normal because you had to protect the vocal. All we were relying on was the best vocal we could get.

La La Land

La La Land was a mixture of the two, oddly enough. There were some live moments in La La Land, particularly the Audition piece at the end, which was all live, little bits of the duet on the hill were live. There were also big playback moments – you can’t really do live recording if there’s a lot of instance, for instance. With Les Misérables there was no dancing, so it could be live. La La Land was a little bit of both, and I thought it worked really well for that reason.

West Side Story (2020)

With West Side Story, there has been an earlier film adaptation of that musical. How much will your approach to the sound be influenced by that? 

NELSON: I think Steven wants a different sort of style and a different take. It’s obviously the classic music with Leonard Bernstein’s score, it’s exactly the same songs, but he’s going to approach it in a different sort of style altogether. I can’t really speak to it because they’re right in the middle of shooting, I haven’t really seen anything of it yet. There may be some live recording; we’ll see.

Gary Rydstrom, Gary Summers, presenter Anjelica Huston, Andy Nelson and Ronald Judkins at the Oscars in 1999

There are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who work on a given movie. To a certain extent, your contributions to a film might be considered less “visible” than say that of an actor or a director, but you are doing crucial work and you have been recognized for it. What are your thoughts on the concept of recognition within the industry, and what do you feel gives you validation and satisfaction in your work? 

NELSON: Look, anything that you get an accolade for is always a real treat; I don’t take it for granted in the slightest. I think what I’ve always tried to do is value the relationship I’ve created over the years with directors and composers, because I’m very close with people like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, I’ve worked on many, many different films with them all. Those relationships to me are the most satisfying thing. If a film happens to get some accolades on top of that, then we all celebrate, but the work is the most important thing. The sense of accomplishment when we seem to pull something off, that’s the satisfaction for me, not the awards.

Andy Nelson and John Williams at the 2014 CAS Awards

Speaking of composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, what is the process of working with them like, and what are some of the differences that you’ve seen between the way different composers work? How do you accommodate that in your mixing? 

NELSON: Well, if you take John Williams, John Williams has a very classic style of writing and he is much more about the performance of the orchestra and tends to want the orchestra to play together, because that’s where he feels the cohesion happen between the players.

Does he still mostly conduct himself? 

NELSON: He does whenever possible, yes, absolutely – and the orchestra loves it, you can tell.

It’s a thrill.

NELSON: It’s a thrill. With somebody like Hans, he’ll approach it differently where he’ll record the strings, then record the brass, then we blend them together afterwards. There’s good and bad in both of those [approaches]. The good part is I have more control, but the bad part is they’re not playing as cohesively as if they were all playing in one go, so you win some and you lose some. It’s just different approaches. With someone like Hans of course, he wants to layer in his synthetic sounds with it, the Hans Zimmer sound, which is often string samples that go with the real strings, whereas someone like John would rely more on the real strings only.

Was there a particular film (or films) that you watched as a kid that make you first sit up and take notice of that film’s use of sound? 

NELSON: Funnily enough, the first film I was ever taken to as a kid was West Side Story.

Full circle!

NELSON: Very much full circle. I can’t say I sat up and took notice of it at the time, but I think I was aware of it more and more. When I started working at a cinema at the age of 16, the first film I learned to throw on the projector was actually Midnight Cowboy, and I remember thinking how great the sound was in that, how great John Barry’s score was. I became very aware, and I started collecting soundtrack albums at that age just to take home and listen to because I just fell in love with cinema music, without even knowing I’d be handling any of it to come, because at that point I didn’t know what my career was going to be like at all. Easy Rider was playing at the same time as Midnight Cowboy; another fantastic soundtrack.

What a moment that was!

NELSON: It was a great moment. The James Bond movies, you know. Music in film has always transported me, as a kid right up to today. When the lights go down and the music plays, I’m in another land. I’m in heaven. [Chuckles]

With Jerry Goldsmith, I’ve never seen a single episode of Star Trek Voyager, I heard the Voyager theme and started crying. He has that power.

L.A. Confidential

NELSON: Jerry is great. I worked with him once on L.A. Confidential, which was a terrific film Curtis Hanson made. I loved Jerry, yeah, never got to work on any of the big shows with him before he passed away, sadly, but what a talent.

What are some of the most cherished memories in your professional life that you find yourself revisiting? 

NELSON: I honestly can’t tell you that there’s one; I tend to categorise them in different ways. To this day, the smile on my face when I first ran The Force Awakens with J.J., just because I felt he’d gone back to…tapped into the real magic of what Star Wars was, I’ll never forget that moment. I had a smile on my face through the whole time we worked on that movie. Can’t wait to see the new one.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Did you work on the new one?

NELSON: I haven’t started it yet, but I am going to do the new one. Probably in about a week’s time I’ll be starting.

Exciting!

NELSON: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

The Thin Red Line

Avatar was obviously fantastic, very challenging for me. A lot of Steven’s films, just because he’s such a master filmmaker, obviously. Terry Malick, Thin Red Line, another good one. I could go on and on. They’re like favourite kids, what’s your favourite child? You can’t say. [Chuckles]

Finally, you have won and been nominated for many awards and have attended awards shows including the Oscars and the BAFTAs. Do you have an awards show story you’d like to tell?

NELSON: I mean, getting up on stage and having to accept the award for Les Mis, I’d never wanted to stand up on that stage and speak because I was terrified at the thought of that. We’d made an agreement that if win [the BAFTA], one person would speak in London, and if we were lucky enough to go to the Oscars, I would speak for that. I said “we’ll never be there”.

Simon Hayes, Mark Paterson and Andy Nelson at the Oscars in 2013

You thought you were safe.

NELSON: I agreed to it and I wasn’t safe. I had to stand up. That was in itself extraordinarily terrifying because there’s nothing quite like that moment. Then we celebrated a lot afterwards, so that’s good [chuckles].

No Man’s La La Land: The 89th Academy Awards

For F*** Magazine

NO MAN’S LA LA LAND
The 89th Academy Awards saves the biggest shock for last
By Jedd Jong

oscars-best-picture-stage

And it was all going so smoothly.

The 89th Academy Awards, which took place on 26 January 2017 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, was proceeding swimmingly. Host Jimmy Kimmel was doing a fine job. Despite capping off an awards season fraught with political tension, the mood in the Dolby Theatre didn’t seem to be one of anger. Impassioned statements were made, but things were kept light enough. The musical La La Land, which had netted 14 nominations, had already clinched six awards. Moonlight, the queer coming-of-age romance, had scored two awards.

Then came the final award of the night.

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To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde, stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the Oscar for Best Picture. Beatty opened the envelope, stared at the slip within, and passed it on to Dunaway, who announced that La La Land won.

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The majority of pundits had predicted as much. Another Oscars done and dusted, right?

In a flub of grand proportions, it turned out that Moonlight was the actual Best Picture winner. Jordan Horowitz, one of the film’s producers, was in the midst of his acceptance speech when he was abruptly informed that La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner.

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“To hell with dreams. I’m done with it. This is true,” Moonlight director Barry Jenkins said as he tried to process what had just unfolded. The luminaries that filled the theatre were noticeably aghast, with Charlize Theron glowering at the stage. Kimmel attempted to salvage the situation, looking apologetic even though it wasn’t his fault. Beatty clarified that the slip in the envelope read ‘La La Land: Emma Stone’ – a duplicate of the Best Actress envelope, which led to the snafu.

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Up until that point, the proceedings had been generally pleasant. Anticipating that this would be a politically-charged ceremony, Kimmel made an effort to keep things light. “Remember last year, when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?” the talk show host quipped. Small parcels of candy and later, cookies and donuts were parachuted down from the Dolby Theatre rafters, much to the delight of the audience. A group of unsuspecting tourists were led from their Star Line tour bus into the Dolby Theatre to interact with the stars. And of course, Kimmel played up his long-standing mock feud with Matt Damon, mocking Damon for opting to star in The Great Wall, which he called a “Chinese ponytail movie” instead of Manchester by the Sea, which Damon remained on as a producer.

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Justin Timberlake’s energetic performance of the cheery “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” from Trolls opened the show, which also included several other enjoyable moments. These include Michael J. Fox and Seth Rogen emerging from a DeLorean on the stage, after which Rogen broke out into the Schuyler Sisters song from the musical Hamilton, much to the amusement of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Auli'i Cravalho

Miranda rapped an original prologue to “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, performed by the voice of Moana herself, Auli’i Cravalho. The 16-year-old was unfazed when a dancer accidentally bumped against the back of her head with a prop meant to depict ocean waves. Sting performed “The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story, while John Legend sang a medley of the two nominated songs from La La Land, “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”. We were disappointed that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone did not perform the numbers. Kimmel interacted with child actor Sunny Pawar, who played young Saroo in the biopic Lion. The host hoisted Pawar aloft, ala The Lion King, with Pawar’s father looking on approvingly.

While the tone wasn’t overtly confrontational, presenters and winners alike slipped anti-Trump messages into their speeches. In the lead-up to the Oscars, hackles were raised over the travel ban instated by President Trump, which barred travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries. To protest this, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi boycotted the Oscars, with the other nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category rallying behind him.

oscars-the-salesman-anousheh-ansari

When Farhadi’s film The Salesman won, Iranian-American astronaut, engineer and businesswoman Anousheh Ansari accepted the award on his behalf. “I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight,” Ansari, reading from a prepared statement by Farhadi, said. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.”

“As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I am against any form of wall that wants to separate us,” presenter Gael García Bernal declared emphatically.

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“I’m from Italy, I work around the world,” said makeup artist Alessandro Bertolazzi, accepting the Best Makeup and Hairstyling award for Suicide Squad. “This is for all the immigrants.”

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The White Helmets, about volunteer rescue workers providing emergency relief in war-torn Syria, clinched the Best Documentary Short Subject award. Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara implored the audience to rise to their feet, to show the people of Syria that they have not gone unnoticed by the far more privileged.

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Viola Davis, who was crowned Best Supporting Actress for Fences, delivered an impactful speech that left many in the theatre misty-eyed. She passionately exhorted for filmmakers to “exhume” the stories of “the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition,” giving credit to Fences playwright August Wilson, her co-star and director Denzel Washington, and God.

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Stone, who was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for Birdman, took home the Best Actress Oscar for playing Mia in La La Land. She thanked her co-star Ryan Gosling, calling him “the greatest partner on this crazy adventure.” Stone humbly acknowledged that she “still [has] a lot of growing and learning and work to do” and called the Oscar statue “a really beautiful symbol to continue on that journey and I’m so grateful for that.”

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Mahershala Ali, who won the Best Supporting Actor prize for Moonlight, thanked his wife Amatus Sami-Karim, who had given birth to their daughter Bari Najima Ali just four days earlier. “I had so many wonderful teachers,” Ali said. “One thing that they consistently told me is that it wasn’t about you. It’s not about you. It’s about these characters. You’re a servant — you’re in service to these stories and these characters.” Ali became the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar.

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Despite rumblings that sexual assault allegations levelled against Casey Affleck a year ago would hurt his shot at the big prize, Affleck won the Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea. “One of the first people who taught me how to act was Denzel Washington, and I just met him tonight for the first time,” Affleck said. He also thanked long-time friend and producer Damon, while giving a shout-out to his famous older brother. “Ben, I love you,” Affleck said, quipping “You ain’t heavy” in reference to the song “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Just My Brother”.

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32-year-old Damien Chazelle made history by being the youngest ever Best Director winner. Making special mention of his girlfriend Olivia Hamilton, the La La Land helmer said “This was a movie about love, and I was lucky enough to fall in love while making it. And it means the world to me that you’re here with me sharing it.” He also thanked producer/composer Justin Hurwitz – the two have known each other since they were 17.

The full list of winners and nominees follows:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

WINNER: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
Dev Patel (Lion)
Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
WINNER: Suicide Squad

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Allied
WINNER: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie
La La Land

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
WINNER: OJ: Made in America
13th

 

BEST SOUND EDITING

WINNER: Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Sully

BEST SOUND MIXING

Arrival
WINNER: Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
13 Hours

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

WINNER: Viola Davis (Fences)
Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
WINNER: The Salesman
Tanna
Toni Erdmann

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Pearl
WINNER: Piper

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle
WINNER: Zootopia

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Arrival
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
WINNER: La La Land
Passengers

 

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
WINNER: The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST FILM EDITING

Arrival
WINNER: Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Moonlight

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

4.1 Miles
Extremis
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland
WINNER: The White Helmets

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT SUBJECT

Ennemis Interieurs
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights
WINNER: Sing
Timecode

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Arrival
WINNER: La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Silence

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Jackie
WINNER: La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Passengers

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

Audition (La La Land)
Can’t Stop the Feeling! (Trolls)
WINNER: City of Stars (La La Land)
The Empty Chair (Jim: The James Foley Story)
How Far I’ll Go (Moana)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
WINNER: Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Arrival
Fences
Hidden Figures
Lion
WINNER: Moonlight

BEST DIRECTOR

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)
WINNER: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

BEST ACTOR

WINNER: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
Denzel Washington (Fences)

BEST ACTRESS

Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Ruth Negga (Loving)
WINNER: Emma Stone (La La Land)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)
Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

BEST PICTURE

Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
ANNOUNCED AS WINNER IN ERROR: La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
WINNER: Moonlight

La La Land

For F*** Magazine

LA LA LAND 

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott
Genre : Musical/Romance
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

la-la-land-poster         If you’re looking to have stars in your eyes, a spring in your step and a song in your heart, boy, does writer-director Damien Chazelle have a show for you. This romantic musical comedy-drama is set in present day L.A., where we meet jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and aspiring actress/playwright Mia (Stone). Sebastian and Mia have been chasing their dreams to little success: Mia works as a barista in a café on the Warner Bros. studio lot in between unsuccessful auditions, while Sebastian plays humiliating cocktail party gigs. After meeting and falling in love, Mia and Sebastian push each other to chase their dreams. Success comes knocking when Keith (Legend), Sebastian’s former classmate, offers Sebastian a gig with his new band, just as Mia begins writing a one-woman play. Will love survive in the City of Angels, a place that takes more than it gives?

In a pop culture landscape overdosed on nostalgia, referring to something as “a love letter to X” has inadvertently become a warning. La La Land proves it is possible to create a loving homage that doesn’t drown in schmaltz, with Chazelle’s own sensibilities as evident as his influences. Present-day Los Angeles isn’t exactly the most romantic city in the world, but Chazelle hones in on and amplifies its charms. It isn’t a fairy tale setting per se, but the injection of magic in just the right amounts makes La La Land an enchanting film.

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Linus Sandgren’s cinematography paints L.A. in vivid, inviting hues, the fuchsia skies looking like a cake one could cut into.  The film’s deliberate use of colour is refreshing and eye-catching. Mandy Moore (no, not that one) provides choreography that is a finely-executed throwback to the days of Busby Berkeley. Every last one of the songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a shoo-in for an Oscar. Just try not tearing up on hearing Audition (The Fools Who Dream).

The opening number, edited to look like a continuous shot in which dancers leap over car doors in the middle of a traffic jam on a freeway, is a technical accomplishment and is joyously cheesy. However, it’s clear that La La Land isn’t a cheery Pollyanna fantasy musical. No, the sun might not come out tomorrow, the fact that it’s southern California notwithstanding. La La Land astutely captures the struggles of an artist climbing the Tinseltown ladder, without swinging to either extreme of self-pity or glibness. Chazelle experiments by letting the worlds of an all-singing, all-dancing Studio-era frothiness and real life collide. Despite its slick visual stylings and deliberate moments of artifice, La La Land’s blend of sincerity tempered with cynicism is resonant and heartfelt.

la-la-land-emma-stone-and-ryan-gosling-dancing

 

 

La La Land’s genesis can be traced back to Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which Chazelle made with Hurwitz as a senior thesis film at Harvard University. Chazelle, known for Whiplash, is a drummer himself, and has followed that film up with a vastly different take on the life of a musician. La La Land’s starry-eyed reminiscence is mesmerizing rather than bloated and self-indulgent, and Chazelle consciously avoids making things too ‘inside baseball’. There’s just the right amount of showbiz satire: for example, a screenwriter (played by actual screenwriter Jason Fuchs) introduces himself with “I have a knack for world-building”, and pitches his idea for a franchise – “Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but from the perspective of the bears”.

The film was originally set to star Miles Teller and Emma Watson, but we have a difficult time picturing them as a better pair than the leading couple we wound up with. Chazelle said Gosling and Stone “feel like the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple”, comparing them to Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. After watching La La Land, we’re inclined to think that’s not hyperbole. Gosling and Stone displayed effervescent chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and watching them sing and dance their way through an old-school movie musical is an utter delight.

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While we’ve seen the archetype of a struggling actress slogging through audition after audition in nigh-futile hope of her big break, Stone’s energy and comic sensibilities make Mia more than the “girl in Hollywood with a suitcase of dreams” cliché. Early on, Stone performs the group number Someone in the Crowd with Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe, who play Mia’s housemates. At this point, Mia is disillusioned but not broken. The personal odyssey she embarks on and the effect that her relationship with Sebastian has on her artistic journey quickly draws the viewer in.

Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz snob, thumbing his nose as what he perceives as perversions of the art form. “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Sebastian’s bandmate Keith chides. “You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” If anyone can make crotchety sexy, it’s Gosling. There’s a roguishness that spices up his usual boyishness, and many a woman will melt at seeing Gosling tinkle the ivories. While composer, orchestrator and keyboard player Randy Kerber performed the piano pieces for the film, Gosling took intensive piano lessons and could play all the pieces by heart, without the need for a hand double or CGI replacements. Gosling’s singing voice isn’t particularly pretty, so phew, he isn’t perfect – but it does seem to fit the character.

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La La Land is as much a soaring, uplifting experience as it is an aching one. Big, brash Hollywood musicals with their hundreds-strong dance ensembles are not known for measured subtlety, but La La Land is infused with surprising, profound nuance. Ambitious and indelible, Chazelle harnesses his nostalgia for classic movie musicals while steering clear of gooey sentimentality. Gorgeous imagery, memorable tunes and perfectly-matched leads make La La Land a transcendent achievement.

Summary: Damien Chazelle weaves a spell-binding, toe-tapping tale, showcasing the talents of his lead couple and paying tribute to classic movie musicals of yesteryear. L.A.’s never looked this lovely.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong