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.