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La La Land’s Oscar-winning “City of Stars” collapses the film's entire plot into 2.5 minutes

That’s why it deserves its Best Original Song Oscar.

Sebastian and Mia prepare for liftoff at the planetarium in La La Land. Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

The divisiveness of responses to La La Land has become a story in itself, culminating at Sunday’s Oscars with a mistaken Best Picture win that was ultimately handed over to true winner Moonlight while seemingly staging in real time critics’ and audiences’ enduring ambivalence to the film. Regardless of the merits of La La Land’s direction and acting, though, there is one Oscar this ode to old Hollywood movie musicals deserved wholeheartedly — the Best Original Song trophy it took home for “City of Stars.”

“City of Stars” may not be La La Land’s catchiest or most exuberant number, and the other La La Land song nominated for an Oscar, “Audition (Fools Who Dream), is arguably more emotionally moving. But “City of Stars” has become La La Land’s de facto theme song because it’s the song most central to the film’s overarching ideas; it’s the movie in microcosm. This carefully constructed musical number collapses La La Land’s entire plot into a two-and-a-half-minute duet by using techniques borrowed equally from old Hollywood and Romantic opera.

“City of Stars” reflects La La Land’s narrative through a classic lyrical arc

Sung as a duet by the film’s leads, jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), “City of Stars” appears about halfway through the film and serves to establish the bond between the film’s protagonists. La La Land’s narrative hinges on whether its lovestruck Angelenos will choose each other over their respective ambitions. This central question — of whether head-over-heels romance can be reconciled with the individualistic drive needed to succeed in Hollywood — runs through the lyrics of “City of Stars.”

Composed by Justin Hurwitz, with words by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “City of Stars” employs a standby form from the golden age of movie musicals: the 32-bar, or AABA, song form. This neat asymmetrical form, where each section of a song is exactly the same length, dominated musicals of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, scaffolding scores of songs from “Over the Rainbow” to “Singing in the Rain.”

The AABA form proved so effective in musicals because of its convenient dramatic structure, allowing composers to A) establish a main theme, A) reinforce it, B) contrast it with new melodic and lyrical material, and then A) return to it.

The A sections of “City of Stars” focus on the difficulty of forging connections in the modern metropolis of Los Angeles. There’s a certain deliberate ambiguity as to whether Sebastian and Mia are singing about each other, or about their careers: “City of stars / Are you shining just for me?” Is that a plea for love in a lonely place, or a call for individual recognition from an unforgiving city and its creative industries?

The meaning becomes clearer in the song’s contrasting B section, as the piano accompaniment moves to a bright, major-key harmony and the lyrics express a romantic yearning in crystalline terms: “A look in somebody’s eyes / To light up the skies / To open the world and send me reeling.”

But the clarity is short-lived.

The final A section returns to the uncertain, minor-key piano accompaniment and then surprises with an abrupt ending, halfway through the expected 16 bars, on the line, “City of stars / You never shined so brightly.”

Lyrically, it’s an optimistic sentiment to end on, but Hurwitz, Pasek, and Paul use a clever structural feint to undercut the song’s hopeful ending, truncating the section before its natural resolution — a musical foreshadowing of what awaits Mia and Sebastian’s relationship.

“City of Stars” unites La La Land’s central themes through the use of leitmotif

Zooming out, the two arcs of La La Land’s plot — love and ambition — are given their own musical interplay in “City of Stars” through a technique called leitmotif, in which certain dramatic themes are given a kind of sonic signature.

Introduced by German composer Richard Wagner in his epic music dramas of the late 1800s, leitmotif took off in opera and quickly spread to the nascent world of film. John Williams’s score for Star Wars marks an excellent example of cinematic leitmotif, where he attaches musical themes to specific characters and moments in the film, themes that are repeated and repurposed throughout the series. In that same tradition, La La Land utilizes leitmotif to musically delineate the paired themes of love and ambition.

We first hear the love motif in La La Land picked out by Sebastian in a dimly lit piano bar. Set in a lilting 3/4 time signature, this languorous, meandering theme perfectly captures the vertiginous state of suspended animation that often accompanies falling in love.

The other main leitmotif in La La Land is the ambition theme, first heard in the opening number “Another Day of Sun,” popping up again directly after in Mia’s song “Someone in the Crowd,” and then sporadically appearing through the rest of the film.

In contrast to the love theme, the ambition leitmotif features a 4/4 time signature, a driving rhythm, and a steadily ascending melody. In La La Land, this is the sound of perseverance, determination, and single-minded focus.

The love and ambition themes populate the film’s score, but neither appears in “City of Stars.” Or do they?

The brilliance of “City of Stars” lies in its subtle sublimation of the ambition theme into the B section of “Stars.” It may not be immediately obvious, but layering the two themes on top of each other reveals how the “Stars” B section is essentially a recomposition of the ambition motif.

“City of Stars” B section, showing original melody above, with ambition motif layered beneath.
Nate Sloan

This revelation proves somewhat distressing, as the major-key optimism of the B section of “City of Stars” appeared to be the one moment of the song that expressed an unequivocal giving-in to the “crazy feeling” of romantic love. Recognizing that the score’s ambition motif is hiding surreptitiously in this exuberant section undercuts the force of Sebastian and Mia’s declaration. Their world may be opening up and the skies all aglow, but the ambition theme, lurking beneath like a palimpsest, tells viewers another story.

At once a single star and part of a larger constellation, “City of Stars” packs La La Land’s dramatic conflict into its every note and syllable, and that’s why it, above all the other songs in the film, deserves to be the song forever associated with La La Land in the cultural memory.

Listen to a complete breakdown of the music from La La Land on the latest episode of Switched On Pop, featuring Vox’s Genevieve Koski.

Nate Sloan is a musicologist and co-host of Switched On Pop, a podcast about how popular music works.

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