Tag Archives: La La Land

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Hollywood’s Sonic Temples

           MGM-Sony-Streisand Scoring Stage in Los Angeles

Opera will always have La Scala and Covent Garden.  And the Beatles will always be identified with EMI’s Abby Road Studios in London.  But these mostly unseen Hollywood scoring stages may matter even more.

If you have wondered why a film in a good cinema can be so engrossing, more credit than you might think should go to the sonic power of the score you are hearing. The audio tracks of all sorts of older and recent movies can be breathtaking in their depth and clarity.  Think of the orchestral scores of John Williams, Rachel Portman, Howard Shore, Alan Sylvestri, Bernard Herrmann and many others.

The old standby, E.T., is unthinkable without William’s wall to wall music, which was recorded at what is perhaps the most preferred venue for large groups available in the United States.  The place: the venerable MGM Scoring Stage on what is now the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. Now named for Barbra Streisand, the 6100 square-foot Stage features a short but potent reverberation time that seems to make big movie set pieces positively bloom.  Musicians, audio engineers and filmmakers love how this building sounds. For most, any changes to this this barn-like room would be unthinkable. You’ve surely heard it, though probably never seen it.  It played a big part in films such as Empire of the Sun, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, La La Land, as well as many classics, including Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and Singing in the Rain. If it can sometimes be hard to know where film magic actually begins, this is one place to look (or at least hear). The history and glorious sound of this stage makes it one of the most beloved film industry landmarks in Los Angeles.


The film score is probably how most Americans now experience the full-throated power of a traditional orchestra.

It’s no surprise that filmmakers treat this large room filled with its forest of microphones as if entering sacred ground. It’s likely to be the spot where a composer and director will first hear a score that they have only known in piano or MIDI arrangements.  Adding to the sense that this is a place of miraculous revelations, they are also likely to hear it played perfectly by an impressive cadre of studio musicians.*

Another landmark is the Scoring Stage built in 1929 on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. Thirty years ago studio executives were eyeing it as a tempting space to convert into production offices, but in the late 90s actor Clint Eastwood persuaded them to rebuild and preserve it. Some think that the renamed Eastwood Scoring Stage has a slightly drier acoustic, but stunning scores have been laid down within it, including those for Casablanca, Back to the Future, Days of Wine and Roses, Rattatouille, Frozen and many more.

An interesting side note: the Warner stage was also used as a location in a pivotal scene in the 1954 version of A Star is Born. Judy Garland records a song while Ray Heindorf conducts. Play the scene to the end and catch a great moment of film acting. James Mason’s private conversation with Garland’s Esther includes a proposal of marriage that has been secretly recorded by one of the stage’s engineers. Her candid list of his faults that all in the room hear during playback turns into an excruciating humiliation.  The moment is a little master-class on film acting.

It seems fitting in the midst of the current renaissance of interest in film music that we also celebrate the remaining purpose-built stages on the lots of the remaining studios.  Similar spaces run by Fox (the Newman Scoring Stage in Century City) and Skywalker Sound (in Marin County, north of San Francisco) contribute to the survival of the orchestra as a major tool of film-making.  A film score is probably how most Americans now experience the full-throated power of a traditional orchestra.

There is also an interesting irony in how these nearly perfect spaces are meant to be used. The amazing performances are obviously heard via well-placed microphones rather than a live audience.  Ask a player, and they will tell you that going to work in comfortable clothes has some virtues. But the applause that usually comes with a live performance in is not part of the picture.  Our awe at their work only comes after the fact.

*Thanks to YouTube, many videos with good audio show musicians and composers at working on scores for films, television, and games.  For a good sample based on the work of composer Peter Boyer at the Sony Stage see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9NiicNKDGU 

Here’s to the Fools Who Dream

Esperanza Spalding /Wikimedia.org

This is a good time to ponder the fates of younger Americans in every American city and town who hope to find a lifeline to the arts.

In a poignant moment in Damien Chazelle’s hit film La La Land (2016) a young actress tries to fathom why she goes on after endless rounds of demeaning auditions.  Ready to give up, she reluctantly agrees to go to a hopeful callback, where the casting director asks her to tell a story rather than read a set script.  And so Mia recounts the experiences of her Aunt in Paris, chasing her dream to be an artist and make some questionable choices “all over again.”  Mia is talking about herself as much as her relative when she offers a quiet toast to those who can go on, singing “Here’s to the fools who dream.”  She’s in the same uncertain state of suspension as her jazz pianist lover, and thousands of other young Americans seeking a foothold in the arts.

We get it because most of us can remember what it was like to seek perfect opportunities against very long odds.  It’s even more touching in the arts, since the dreamers who succeed still face uncertainties and crazy hours that would defeat most of us.  Those who have chosen these kinds of lives have exchanged security for the uncertain rewards of following their passions.

The stage struck performer running out of hope and money is an old story that Hollywood and Broadway love to retell. Think of the three versions of A Star is Born, (1934, 1954, 1976) or Singing in the Rain (1952), or the darker All About Eve (1950). Perhaps these are so durable because the experience is so universal, not to mention the awe we have for the kinds of pleasures that artists of all types can create. We are refreshed and renewed by what people among us can do on canvass,  on stage, on the screen and the transformation of musical notation into sonic magic.  Who could but want them to succeed?  And so we take the ride with them again and again.  Their dreams and talent seed our optimism about the future.

This is a good time to ponder the fates of younger Americans in every American town who hope to find a pathway to a lifetime in the arts.  It has never been harder to make a living as an artist, musician or actor. Dance companies and orchestras around the country struggle to close budget deficits. Problems of long-term financing have even hit stalwarts like the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Even so, the dreamers need our support.  I’ve heard parents express pride over the decision of one of their maturing children to follow a path into music, art, art history, philosophy or theater. And I’ve heard the disheartening responses of others who profess sympathy to those parents because of the supposed challenges that await.  Such bogus displays of compassion actually demonstrate how we can too easily give up on the ideals and optimism of the young.  When those kids successfully find their ways–and many do–the rewards are all the sweeter.

To be sure, audiences are more distracted and less inclined to pause long enough to sit in a theater seat or pay the price of a Broadway show.  But the larger problem looms in the deepening cesspool of American politics, with discussion in Congress of gutting modest levels of federal arts funding. The small but important budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are all at risk. They represent less than one half of one percent of the federal budget, but they are always targets for cuts from fiscal conservatives.

The perfect responses to many states of mind often come into focus through narratives we witness in performance.

Of course the real fool’s errand is to cut the nation’s youth off from the arts.  The perfect responses to many states of mind often come into focus through narratives we witness in performance.  Most American Presidents have known this, showcasing American talent in many ways, including wonderful nights of East Room performances from that have ranged from Esperanza Spalding’s jazz to bluegrass music. Almost all have been broadcast on PBS.

It’s perhaps understandable that well-paid and self-satisfied policy-makers will decide what they can live without.  But it’s inexcusable to thoughtlessly take away the birthright of students who yearn to contribute to arts that are so eagerly consumed and cherished by the rest of us.