Sight & Sound: the Harmony of ‘La La Land’ and ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Damian Chazelle’s La La Land, two Oscar contenders with more differences than similarities, use music in contrasting yet complementary ways. La La Land is a love letter to both the bygone era of movie musicals (shot in Cinemascope, for all you West Side Story fans) and that supposedly dying art form known as jazz; while Manchester by the Sea is a sorrowful tale of coping with loss and placing both feet back on the ground. If each were a dance, one might be West Coast swing, the other a listless shuffle to a shoe-gaze band. Yet when looking at each film and its music, one sees the appropriateness of this cinematic pairing.

In La La Land, we hear the faint discord of car horns before we see anything, and we realize we’re in the middle of a congested highway. Immediately, the film is telling us to use our ears as much as our eyes in this story. As the bumper-to-bumper traffic becomes more defined, the honking turns into a variety of musical styles coming from the various car stereos, and then into the score for the film’s first (and one of its grandest) musical numbers. This act of embracing the dissonance of daily life as music influences the camera movement, tracking alongside cars from different eras.

What’s notable about these different cars is how they represent Chazelle’s infatuation with sound from decades prior. Each one hums and purrs, growls and sputters just a little bit differently, and that’s exactly what Chazelle does with the varying musical pieces that fill La La Land. Gosling and Stone’s first duet evokes Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” where their falling-in-love dance is reminiscent of Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s number in “The Band Wagon.”

Both of these numbers represent a different time, when dance was a movement between its subject and song and less about story. The number of times a musical has included a song that depicts its characters falling in love while they claim not to be is enough to clutter a dance floor. It’s a note that eventually shifts into heavier songs, represented in the minimalist set piece of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which features Stone singing directly into the camera. La La Land begins with music, then eventually develops a relationship with its subjects and with its themes of love and loss, moving hand in hand with Justin Hurwitz’s score. Sure, we’re witnessing a blossoming love that’s inevitably going to fade, but it’s told through a partnership of music and film that is rare in its panache and sincerity.      

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea has a sort of revisionist take on film and score, casting its modern-day New England setting against centuries-old baroque concertos. Its grey-torn visuals rest operatically on waves of classical pieces from such composers as Handel, Massenet, Albinoni and Poulenc. It’s a unique and bold choice that composer Lesley Barber makes, producing harmony set against visual discord.

There’s a scene in the second act in which Lee (Casey Affleck), having had a few of his friends over, walks to the convenience store for more beer. It’s a tracking shot that might normally overstay its welcome, if it weren’t for the foreboding and eloquent nature of Handel’s Messiah that seems to carry Lee to his late-night destination. The use of Handel’s Pastoral interlude, which begins with the Pifa, an ode to the pipes played in the streets of Rome during Christmas, allows for a comforting and familiar piece to help us adjust to the emotional baggage of the film. It’s a musical choice that speaks to both the tone of the shot, its harsh shadows lying thick over the snow, as well as the film’s theme.

Handel’s Messiah, containing three parts — birth, passion, and resurrection — adds even greater importance to this scene. The strings flutter around Lee as if carrying him, while the idea of birth — purity, beauty, innocence, fragility — contrasts with the tragic events about to befall Lee. Yet therein lies the wonder of Barber and Lonergan’s collaborative dance. They are able to take a composition written over 250 years ago and have it guide their subject through the harsh winter toward an even harsher outcome without feeling the necessity for any interaction between camera and music. Given the many components that make up Messiah, the choice of having it shovel a path for its subject is one that resonates throughout Manchester by the Sea, as Barber’s minimal piano and strings contradict the very nature of its film.

But that’s what breathes life into a film rife with sorrow and listlessness: this ability to use musical choices to starkly divide the thematic elements. Replacing Handel’s Messiah with Run DMC’s “Walk This Way” (for example) would show the same exact imagery, and might actually work from where Lee is coming from (the theme of sex, drugs, and rock & roll being a bit too blatant), but it’s a choice that would lose its footing. Instead, both Manchester by the Sea and La La Land marry sight and sound in a refreshing way. Both films show that a strong relationship between music and film is possible, even if only one of them is dancing.


Greg Mucci obsesses over movies and music in Boston.