I must admit that since I love all things musical and have done all my life, La La Land didn’t have to do much to garner my support. I mean a new original musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had me at ‘action’! But what a revelation to find this film beautifully crafted, delightfully entertaining and visually stunning. I haven’t seen a film for years that exudes such richness of colour and style in its impeccable production design and drop dead gorgeous cinematography, underpinned by a beautiful original musical score.
I was in awe when ‘Another Day of Sun’ opened the film in a symbolic all singing, all dancing musical fantasy for people with big dreams stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam. This was our introduction to people escaping to La La Land and its iconic references to LA’s landscape. It was blissfully fun, full of infectious syncopated rhythms and filmed in Cinemascope wide format, in intense technicolour, that recalls Hollywood’s films of the 50’s and 60’s. The scene was carefully choreographed. It was carefully framed and carefully crafted. Yet somehow it felt spontaneous, joyful and visceral.
Writer and director Daniel Chazelle uses this opening scene to establish a musical language and to set both the style and tone of the film, a look and sound that we haven’t seen come out of Tinseltown for some time. The spirit of the film is heyday Hollywood of the 40’s and 50’s, with several affectionate nods to historical musical film scenes (Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris), yet the content is modern, grounded in real life and the setting is current. In fact there is an ongoing juxtaposition of the old and the new throughout the film that keeps it visually exciting. Many classic LA locations and icons are used to evoke the glamour of its arts scene, while many dilapidated buildings give us a glimpse of Hollywood’s former glory. The cinematography captures the vitality, the sprawl and the skies of LA and draws us into jazz clubs, film lots, Beverley Hills’ house parties and old theatres using saturated colour and bold graphic imagery. For some scenes the fantasy is extended with painted backdrops, reinforcing the theatrical style. The lighting is masterfully manipulated to spotlight emotionally significant moments and the costumes are bright and playful. It was Jacques Demy’s ‘Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ that influenced Chazelle’s desire for primary coloured clothing and vibrant art direction. While dazzling us with its beauty, La La Land pays tribute to a poetic city full of optimism and zeal but also to a city renowned for crushing hopes and breaking hearts.
The content too explores the connection between the past and the present, particularly for Ryan’s character Sebastian, a jazz purist who laments the bastardisation of old style jazz in the contemporary music scene, and for Emma‘s character Mia who dreams of becoming a movie star for one of the big film studios, like Ingrid Bergman, whose poster she keeps on her wall. Along the way they find that nostalgia is replaced with pragmatism, tradition is outcast by the new, and iconic dreams are out of touch with reality. As Seb declares ‘dreams are about conflict and compromise’, we as an audience gain an insight into the everyday joy and pain that comes from dedicating yourself to the pursuit of your goals. We also see that lasting relationships and creative drive are sometimes incompatible. The film is a salute to LA, a mecca for creative people and their struggles to make it, both professionally and personally.
The main criticism of the film is its lack of narrative and clichéd love story…girl meets boy, falls in love, falls out of love. However, I see the relationship between the aspiring jazz musician and actress as much more complex, where not just love is at stake but their dreams and desires. The story is about the struggle of being an artist and reconciling one’s dreams with the need to be human. Their artistic journeys are dogged with failure and less than salubrious gigs. At every turn real life gets in the way of their aspirations. The real drama is that Sebastian and Mia’s dreams take flight at different times and their mounting success means they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair. Ultimately Sebastian and Mia end up with lost love and regrets. The sadness is that their love never really dies and that their precious dreams for themselves and each other ultimately rip their relationship apart. So the film is not just a love affair between two people but a love affair with what LA can offer them. The main song ‘City of Stars’ is the epitome of this conundrum.
The other main criticism is that both Ryan and Emma are not dancers or singers and did not do the triple threat roles justice. But there is something charming and alarmingly real about their performances, that is incredibly appealing. The director could have used experienced dancers and singers with impeccable moves and notes but their prowess would have compromised the authenticity of the film. There’s a spontaneity and casualness when Ryan and Emma start dancing that keeps the story moving and genuine. And being good instead of great accentuates their connection. Additionally, great singers and dancers do not necessarily have the chemistry required on screen or have the pulling power of these stars to draw crowds and ensure a box office success. Chazelle cast the two because they ‘feel like the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple’. There is also something endearing about these two actors having to work hard in real life to gain new skills (Ryan practiced the piano for 4 hours a day and Emma worked tirelessly with choreographer Mandy Moore) to maintain their place on the Hollywood ladder.
If you are not a musical theatre buff then characters breaking into song and dance can be irritating at best. But the raison d’etre of musicals is that the musical numbers extend the emotional performances of the protagonists and deepen our understanding of their plight. Through music and dance we are able to enter into a more intimate connection with them and their emotional journey. This is so true in La La Land where the musical sequences are not treated as a formal counterpoint to the dramatic scenes but as a continuation of the possibilities. When romance blossoms at the Griffith Observatory, Mia and Sebastian are transcended into flight towards the celestial stars, waltzing to ‘Planetarium’. A party in the Hollywood Hills might just be Mia and her flatmates’ chance to be ‘discovered’ with ‘Someone in the Crowd’ escalating their anticipation of a night to remember. And ‘A Lovely Night’ develops Mia and Sebastian’s romance, celebrating LA, the night and the serendipity that keeps bringing them together.
The original score by Justin Hurwitz is dreamy, playful and richly melancholy. It injects the film with whimsy where it needs to, ‘Another Day of Sun’, then takes us on a bittersweet, haunting lyrical ride with ‘The Fools Who Dream’. A pianistic rendition of ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’ literally pulls Mia into a jazz club at the start of the film then pops up every time she and Sebastian have to work out the logistics of their life and career. It features again poignantly at the end where Sebastian’s piano playing is literally an outpouring of his grief. It is directly the music and dance in La La Land that elevates it to a dazzling piece of entertainment, pulling us into a story of love, dreams and loss and undeniably celebrating Chazelle’s and Hurwitz’s love of musicals and jazz.
So to anyone that thought La La Land was simply a piece of fairy floss for the eyes and ears, they are entirely missing the point of this complex romantic musical. It is a celebration and defence of the 20th century movements of classic jazz and Hollywood’s Golden Age. And along the way it is audacious, romantic, funny and heartfelt, paying homage to America’s classic musicals while building its own classic status. The movie has a tougher emotional outlook than the melodies suggest, with the two leads equally strong and tender while negotiating the complex drama of their life choices. The ending is heartbreaking and full of regret, despite the two managing to fulfill their dreams. So while La La Land splashes its poster-paint energy and dream-chasing optimism all over the screen, we are ultimately connected to the melancholy of the clash between art and commerce, the sadness at missed opportunities and the pitfalls of modern love.
The lyrics from ‘Audition’ sum it up:
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
La La Land is a glorious cinematic experience and a very rare thing: an original movie musical with an irresistible excess of heart.