La La Land sets out its musical tone from the get go.
Presented in CinemaScope, the film opens to a gridlocked traffic jam. Everyone is stuck in their own world as the camera pans along the American freeway of Los Angeles.
Suddenly the singing, the dancing and the music all kick in. It’s vibrant, colourful and surreal. Your mind starts to wonder – “what is this? What is happening? Why is everyone so happy?” I mean, could you imagine if that happened on the London Underground? “There’s severe delays on the Piccadilly Line due to excessive dancing and singing on the platform. Please use alternative routes…”
But here’s the thing about La La Land – you can’t help but love it. If you ever felt down, La La Land can certainly pick yourself up.
“This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!” – Sebastian
The above quote sums up the artistic style from La La Land. It’s a nostalgic and sentimental clash of modern-day struggles and the essence of 50s Hollywood. It becomes a tribute to a bygone era of Hollywood cinema where bubblegum technicolor and MGM musical numbers dominated our screens. Films such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris and The Band Wagon becomes an influence and inspiration.
It’s a film steeped in film history, referencing classics like Casablanca and Rebel Without A Cause. It immediately identifies a fondness for it, fighting for a past that is in danger of becoming a forgotten and dying art form, consumed by our endless distractions of reality TV, big brand franchises, politics, technology and social media. In a poignant scene where Mia (Emma Stone) walks past a painted mural of Hollywood greats, it’s an emotive contrast of the past and the present. It’s the celebration of the talent versus Mia’s pipe dream of becoming an actress that emulates her idols.
But La La Land doesn’t come across as a full-blown musical as observed in the trailers. There are moments where it’s akin to a Woody Allen comedy, full of the deadpan humour and charm. Other areas are an ode to 500 Days of Summer. But where it really matters is that it takes opportunities where it can be quiet, either like a silent movie like The Artist or a reflective drama that is more in line with Cabaret or A Star is Born. The music is used sporadically where it doesn’t become overbearing or overwhelming, a criticism which I used in my review of Frozen. The dance styles are an eclectic mash-up of tap to ballroom dancing – an homage to the likes of Gene Kelly, the late great Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
It takes advantage of a surreal and visual dreamscape as if the audience entered another reality. Characters dancing amongst the night-lit stars. Snow falls against a colourful party backdrop. Backgrounds fade to black until a spotlight selectively picks out a subject. Striking yet gorgeous images which seems strange at first but slowly becomes a defining part of its act.
There’s a lot to absorb from La La Land. The clash of styles and ideas are collectively embraced. It’s the balance of cheese meets whimsical. Romance meets heartbreak. An old tradition meets modern ways. A sincere heart meets good fun – and La La Land completely owns it, in its own magical way.
As his second directorial film, Damien Chazelle moves away from the ear-pounding and vocal punishment that represented Whiplash for something truthful, heart warming and incredibly simple.
When they say, they don’t make these films any more, they may have a point.
“People love what other people are passionate about.” – Mia
La La Land examines and explores a human vulnerability in all of us.
We all have dreams. It doesn’t matter what they are because no dream is too big or too small. It’s the fabrication of it that gives us the belief and conviction that one day it could be possible. But like everything in life, La La Land asks a simple question – in the pursuit of your dream, do you stick to your principles and go for broke or compromise on the vision?
The grand opening overture Another Day in the Sun, reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain‘s Broadway Melody serves as a visual way to introduce this concept. The pent-up, mundane blandness of routine becomes a random short burst of freedom into an uplifting song. The second signature song Someone in the Crowd is the hopeful premise of opportunity, escaping your comfort zone in hope that the unexpected happens.
It’s interesting how the film uses the opening numbers to juxtapose the introductions of Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). They are essentially disconnected from the world around them as if they’re living in an alternate universe. Their lives are not the song and dance that the world beats to. Where La La Land gets clever is how the music become integral to their personal struggles and their relationship.
La La Land doesn’t introduce the characters like a Hollywood cliché. There’s no love at first sight mantra nor do they have the same interests. They are artists who are true to themselves, falling passionately in love with the culture that inspires them – Mia with her acting aspirations, Sebastian as a Jazz pianist looking to open his own club.
Their relationship becomes a playful balancing act throughout. When they first meet, it’s a clash of personalities and artistic values (A Lovely Night). Their solo songs are an internal, melancholic tone of wishful dreaming (City of Stars). When their love blossoms, their songs are an infusion of a dreamy symphonic orchestra (Planetarium) that wouldn’t be out-of-place in Disney’s Fantasia and an energetic jazz ensemble (Summer Montage/Madeline). Their connection turns into a romantic, synchronize overture – a music of their own symbolic creation and harmony, opening the door for creative inspiration and support. When the relationship hits a rough patch, their songs loses the harmonic balance as other creative influences or sacrificial compromises disturb their rhythm (Start a Fire). But when they bare their soul, it becomes a poetic journey of self-discovery (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).
La La Land distinguishes itself from its musical predecessors by never pretending or shying away from reality. Without struggle, there’s no sacrifice. Without pain and rejection, there’s no motivation. Without exposure, there’s no opportunity. Chazelle returns to a familiar trait used in Whiplash – it’s dedication and commitment that makes it possible. Allowing yourself to be exposed on an emotional level as Mia does in her auditions or with Sebastian playing songs not on the club playlist takes an unknown courage and self-belief. It’s a risk that may never pay off or the next step into something greater.
Stone and Gosling have a natural and charming chemistry and it’s easy to understand why. They’ve worked together previously on Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad and therefore they know their collaborative limits and strengths. Do they have the greatest singing voices? No but they’re not suppose to be professionally trained singers. They’re meant to represent the everyday person. From their dances and their costume designs, Stone and Gosling look like the classic Hollywood actors from the 50s era if La La Land was made then.
What makes La La Land enduring is its conclusion. It’s a conflicting and bittersweet moment because it does one simple thing – it doesn’t give you what you want. In the same fashion how the film adopts different styles with its Hollywood homages and fan service, Chazelle challenges that concept by breaking the rules. In return you get something unconventional that doesn’t feel clichéd or something that would misrepresent the characters and their spirit. Honestly, when films are hinged on its ending, La La Land‘s ending certainly defines it.
Will it win any awards on originality? Is there some deep, philosophical meaning that challenges you? Will the plot set the world alight? Of course not. In Hollywood there’s plenty of love stories that elevate in the same way. There’s plenty of stories that talk about dreams and roads not taken. I could argue that the film is completely overhyped…which it is.
However, La La Land celebrates the human spirit with a joyful song and dance and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s no rule book that every film has to be the same. Will it appeal to everyone? Only you can answer and judge that. But La La Land’s success is because revels in its simplicity. It’s the passion that keeps artful dreams alive and that alone makes it thoroughly entertaining, enough to distract you from doldrums of the world.
Maybe a little bit of happiness is what we all need. So here’s to the ones who dream.