La La Land with the San Francisco Symphony Review – An Homage to the Legendary & Dazzling Originality!

Opening movie screen, with the San Francisco Symphony, Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony

Marsha Felton, Splash Magazines Contributor

Have you ever savored a favorite film, watched it on a giant screen in a stunning Symphony Hall while the magnificent soundtrack is performed live on stage, just beneath the screen, by a world-renowned Orchestra? 

I have and loved every minute of it! Mesmerizing, deeply affecting, unforgettable! I’d seen La La Land four times and listened to the soundtrack-cd innumerable times. I didn’t realize how quickly the greatness of this evening would take my breath away, from the first moments. Seeing the movie come alive on the massive screen and the technical musical brilliance…only the actors’ voices were on the screen (there are also subtitles), when the orchestra began playing the score. I was transported to magical, and realistic, worlds…Exhilarating!

Composer/Conductor Justin Hurwitz, Photo: JP Lor, San Francisco Symphony

The audience anticipation was perceptible. The lights dimmed, La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz, conducting the San Francisco (SF) Symphony for the first time, walked on stage to a standing ovation! Beginning with ‘Overture’ (not in the film), it set the mood and introduced many genres of forthcoming music. There was enthusiastic applause after almost every beautiful song/scene. It was really special to be in this warm, wonderful environment, shared with 2,600 other fans who love this film. (Both Feb. 28 and Feb. 29 were sell-outs.)

Another Day of Sun, Photo: JP Lor for San Francisco Symphony

Click here for link to (official) La La Land trailer

About La La Land:

La La Land centers on Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress waiting for her big break, dreaming of big success, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a gifted jazz pianist who dreams of fulfilling his passion, to open his own jazz club where great musicians will play and jazz music will be celebrated. After repeatedly running into each other in LA, in a manner reminiscent of the golden age of ‘50’s classic Hollywood musicals, Mia and Sebastian capitulate to the inevitability of their romance and love affair. Their overall chemistry and talents soar in this unforgettably original movie. They struggle between pursuing love and pursuing one’s dream. It embraces your heart from the beginning and stays with you until the end, an exquisite tapestry…may leave you conflicted between rooting for the romance and wanting the characters to succeed in their lifelong dreams that they pursue in their own ways. 

Winner of six Academy Awards®, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Music Score.

San Francisco Symphony highlights: 

Hurwitz kept the orchestra perfectly in sync with the film, the complexity was amazing. At a prior screening Hurwitz explained: “the movie’s going to keep going and it’s not going to stop, so we have to keep up.” This night their timing was impeccable. When there was little or no dialogue, subtle notes of melodies and delicacy of the score were appreciated, such as in “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme,” and quieter moments of “City of Stars” and “Audition.” Depending on the music, the piano, brass sections, harps and other string instruments played with melancholy or spirited elation. Grand orchestrations were astonishing, such as for the elegantly constructed “Planetarium.” The SF Symphony had it all when it came to bringing La La Land to life!

The piano was a triumph of the night! So much of the film’s music flows from Sebastian’s piano. Every note from the pianist’s skilled fingers, and the keyboardist, danced across the keys in perfect time…a virtuosic performance.

Mia and Sebastian, Photo: JP Lor for San Francisco Symphony

Fun Fact: 

Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle were Harvard roommates, and were amazed that they got to produce their score on the same stage as Singing in the Rain and other great MGM musicals. 

Selected La La Land songs:(To me, all are uniquely original and timeless)

“Another Day of Sun” 

La La Land opens with a 6-minute stunningly vibrant, fast-paced production number on an L.A. freeway, as dozens of traffic-jammed young drivers extraordinarily dance on car roofs and sing about chasing their dreams. It ends as Mia and Sebastian, destined to meet, first cross paths from their cars. This joyful opening makes it clear viewers are about to see a brilliantly creative Musical. Spectacularly original music, choreography and cinematography.

“A Lovely Night” 

Jazzy, flirtatious song, staged on a hilltop overlooking LA at sunset. It’s the first time Mia and Sebastian interact musically. They literally dance around their feelings for each other, their dancing reminiscent of Astaire-Rogers, Kelly-Caron; choreography to jazz, contemporary, tap and a few steps from ballroom. The orchestration gets increasingly playful, different groupings of instruments jump to the forefront, faster and faster as it goes along, peaks and returns to sweet calm towards the end of the song.

City of Stars, Sebastian, Photo: JP Lor for San Francisco Symphony

“City of Stars” 

Iconic song is in the film various times, a wistful solo or duet vocals, hummed, whistled or as an instrumental. In “Epilogue” and “The End.” Hurwitz: “I would say the tone is hopeful, but melancholy at the same time.” Both Mia and Sebastian’s singing is uniquely beautiful, tender and enchanting. The deeply touching song is somewhat haunting to me, when it is an instrumental.


One of my favorites! Absolutely enchanting, as Mia and Sebastian wondrously lift-off in a dream dance sequence over the clouds to a swirl of stars and planets at the Griffith Observatory. This romantic scene is shortly before intermission. The venerable influence of Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand seems apparent, and a tribute to the film Rebel Without a Cause, in the sweep of the melody and the drive of the waltz. Gorgeous and sophisticated orchestrations.

“Start A Fire” 

This is unique in the musical score…a soulful, soaring pop track! It also represents Sebastian reaching a point where making a living is of primary importance, so he joins a well-known band headed by charismatic pop star Keith (John Legend.) The only track to feature audible electronics, amazing SF Symphony synchronization. I wanted to get up from my seat and dance, as did others around me! 

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”

A ‘tour de force’ at a hugely emotional point of the film, near the climax, Mia belts out a showstopper at an audition (another!) where she is asked to tell a personal story to casting directors. This sets Mia on a course to fame. Hurwitz loosely modeled the song off I Will Wait for You from the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. (Demy/Legrand) The amazing lyrics sum up the general message of the movie by evolving from a very specific piece, captivating, and heart-stopping storytelling.


Spoiler Alert!

Mia Audition, Photo: JP Lor for San Francisco Symphony

Finale – Is the ending happy or sad? After my initial viewing, it was a shocking, bittersweet finale…is it ‘twist-my-heart sad’ or ‘kick-up-my-heels joyful’? And I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘what if…’? From Screenwriter/Director Damien Chazelle about the ending: “It was kind of an acknowledgement that life doesn’t always completely live up to the perfect version that we have in our heads, but that that’s ok. Let’s give them the old-fashioned musical version of their story, where there’s no real conflict and we can be left to reflect, is that actually better than what happened? Or are they actually in an even better place in real life than they would be there?…That’s the question the audience can be left with.” Seeing it with the SF Symphony, I now think La La Land is a celebration of the immense possibility of multi-faceted love, and having and nurturing a dream inside our hearts. It may show us what happens when you dare to dream and give your all to have that dream fulfilled. And, I’m still wondering…!


La La Land: Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. All songs feature music by Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, except for “Start a Fire,” written by Hurwitz, John Legend, Angélique Cinélu and Marius de Vries.

San Francisco Symphony performed with full orchestration. 


Piano – Joan Cifarelli (5 stars!); Keyboard/Synth – Steve Sanders; Harpists – Douglas Rioth and Jieyin Wu; Guitar – John Imholz; Electric bass – Scott Pingel; Saxophones – Charlie McCarthy, David Henderson, Kevin Stewart; trumpet – Mark Inouye

I recommend seeing any performances by the world-renown SF Symphony. Regarding the SF Symphony/Film Series, you don’t have to only love classical music to have a fantastic time, as Composer/Conductor Hurwitz has commented: “It’s such a great platform that can move and touch so many more people than go regularly to the symphony…” 

Schedule and information for the entire 2019-2020 season 

The seventh season of the SF Symphony’s Film Series begins Oct. 30, 2019

Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA

Freelance journalist: Marsha Felton

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