"La La Land": An In-Depth Look
By: Freyja Pakarinen
I saw La La Land as soon as it came out and it left me a crying mess. As a fan of old-school musicals, it was wonderful to see the classic film techniques brought to 21st century cinema. This article will outline why La La Land feels naturally nostalgic and why I personally admire the film’s plot/themes. To round it all off, I will finish by explaining why it’s great that it didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture.
An Homage to Musical Classics
It is very obvious that La La Land is a tribute to the 1940s-50s golden era of musicals. Very helpfully, the editor Sara Preciado created a video that features a ‘spot-the-reference’ for La La Land’s various visual tributes:
While this video playfully reveals the Easter eggs littered throughout the film, many of which I enjoyed greatly, I want to discuss more specifically how Chazelle actually managed to capture an old musical style in La La Land. The golden age of musicals was lead by MGM post-WWII cinema during a time when film audience’s attitudes were undergoing a shift. War and propaganda films had dominated the early 1900s and people were now yearning for escapism. A prominent director at this moment, Vincente Minnelli, was a leading individual in creating and fulfilling a new formula for classic movie musicals. His masterpieces, such as Meet Me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon, An American in Paris, and Gigi demonstrate conventions which are visibly evident La La Land, that help us get the audience into the feel of a golden age musical. One particularly obvious link comes from Minnelli’s boldness and heightened use of colour, which became an iconic feature in musicals. As this was a transitional period in filmmaking when cinema shifted from black and white to colour, there was a rush of excitement to explore and do crazy, experimental things with the colour in a frame. As modern day films value and focus more on realism, Chazelle’s use of colour makes every frame pop with a vibrancy which already sets the mood for La La Land to be considered as a classic.
When I first watched the opening number ‘Another Day of Sun’ in the cinema, I honestly started to tear up because of how beautiful Linus Sandgren’s cinematography was (the most beautiful steadicam work I’ve ever seen!). The use of long takes and the effort to flow and sync the camera with the dancer’s choreography is very emblematic of classic musicals. Modern musical films such as Chicago and Moulin Rouge! demonstrate the new style of having lots of cuts and exciting angles during musical sequences, but if you go back to watching any iconic Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers number, you will notice very few cuts and the extremely subtle movement of the camera with the lead(s). Notice in this clip (of the first half of the musical number “A Lovely Night”) it is filmed all one long take, with very smooth and simple camera movements:
Another recognisable convention is the use of fantasy. A majority of the musical classics contain a purely fantastical scene, which does nothing for the plot and is just for the sake of magic and beauty. As I previously stated, in this day and age, modern musical films focus more on realism, not necessarily gritty realism, but usually there is a justification for why the cast is singing (i.e they’re in a band or preparing for a musical) to distance the film as far away from fantasy as possible. Therefore, the moment in La La Land where the handkerchief floats into the air and they begin to dance in the stars is so not what we’re used to seeing, which in turn compels us to feel like it’s a classic.
Significantly, the casting of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is in itself an homage to classic Hollywood. The two actors have played against each other in two previous films and in both of these they have been a couple in love, thus seeding the idea in our minds that they are an ideal match. Personally, I can’t think of another duo that is closer to this notion of an old Hollywood couple. Their initial annoyance of each other and claiming that they could never fall for one another (whilst simultaneously falling in love) reminds me of the beginning of Don and Kathy’s relationship in Singin’ in the Rain and Lucky and Penny’s romance in Swing Time. Stone and Gosling can pull this off so well because of their amazing on-screen chemistry and the fact that we already imagine them as a well-suited couple.
In terms of the plot of the film, Damien Chazelle took great inspiration from Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, you can read about the similarities here: http://www.popsugar.com/entertainment/Similarities-Between-La-La-Land-Umbrellas-Cherbourg-43065560
Mia as a Strong Woman
I’ve read a few things that have said that Mia is not a strong woman, and on this point, I completely disagree. She is extremely strong. She dropped out of college to pursue her dreams of acting and when she’s not getting the roles she desires, she writes her own. Not only does she write her own play, but she blatantly works incredibly hard to design the sets, costumes, find a venue and rehearse. She invites talent agents to her play which is 100% her own creation and vision. To take action and create your own path and success, when things are not necessarily working out as planned, is undeniably brave. Now we get to the part that seems to discredit her for this. When her play fails, she initially gives up and Ryan Gosling’s character, Seb, has to convince her attend an audition. Firstly, I do not believe that this specific audition was her “one shot” because in life that is never how it works. If Seb hadn’t strolled into her life, there would have been another audition. She clearly has talent, passion and drive. As someone who is determined to go into filmmaking, there have been many times where I start to give up on the dream as I believe I’m simply not good enough. But in the end I keep coming back to it because I love it too much — this unyielding ambition is written into Mia’s character, as on audition day she is back to her driven, enthusiastic self. The fact that she momentarily broke down and picked herself back up again does not make her weak; it makes her human. Seb offering support during her break down does not mean she is reliant on men for her decisions; she could have got back to that place of mind without him, his belief in her simply sped up the process. Also it is noteworthy that Seb’s supportive approach of Mia mirrors when she previously was concerned about whether his band and tour was really what he wanted to do in life. The protagonists are clearly very aware of each other’s dreams, aiding the other in reaching such aspirations and that makes neither of them weak.
The Plight of an Artist
Linking to what I just spoke about, one of the main things that I loved about the film was how it depicted the struggle of pursuing the arts. The arts are a very difficult and unstable field to do well in. Plus, when you don’t succeed it can be painful, it can knock you down, as you’ve put so much of yourself into it — and yet people still pursue a life in the arts as it is meaningful and rewarding. Firstly, as a side note, I absolutely loved how supportive Mia and Seb were when they each perused their dreams. He repeatedly commended how amazing her play is and she, simultaneously, learnt about jazz and designed the logo for his would-be, could-be Jazz club. Anyway, the tensions surrounding Mia and Seb’s relationship are not due to incompatibility or a lack of belief in one another; they created strong foundations of support and trust. The main stress came from external factors, from the difficulties of following their dreams. For example Seb taking a job he didn’t want due to his financial troubles, for the paycheck, or Mia having to travel to Paris. I loved this bittersweet aspect of the film as it was realistic and is likely experienced by many couples. The film shows that you can be with an amazingly perfect person, but sometimes particular circumstances can be inconvenient, and at the end of the day you have to put yourself and your goals first. Importantly, Mia and Seb are better off having known each other and have been an important part of each other’s journeys. To quote Mary Oliver, they understand that they must “love what is mortal” which it hurts, because of course it’s going to hurt, but overall these situations are okay because these artists put everything into their own dreams and eventually accomplished them.
Criticisms (why I’m glad La La Land didn’t win best picture)
So far, I’ve played it off like this film can do no wrong, but I do understand some of the criticisms which have circulated since the film’s release. The main one is the problematic use of jazz. Not only does the film, very rose-tintedly, explain the origins of jazz, but also the idea of a white man ‘saving’ jazz is not even sugar-coating the white-washing. I completely agree that the continued use of the phrase ‘saving jazz’ is very dodgy, however I do feel like we have to take writer/director Damien Chazelle into account. Damien Chazelle does have a passion for jazz and struggled to make it as a jazz drummer at Princeton High School. Much like Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash, who was loosely based on Chazelle, Ryan Gosling is also a representation of his pursuit of jazz. It is more narcissistic to visualising oneself as the lead, rather than purposeful racism. Composer Justin Hurwitz was both ex-roommates with Damien Chazelle’s and they played in the same jazz band, so good intentions and a passion for jazz are there. However, these excuses do not help their case during a period of trying to steer away from #Oscarssowhite, especially since there have been such amazing strong black power films this awards season.
Overall, in the light of Trump, the last thing people need right now is particular homage to the 1950s. Representation matters. Moonlight not only stars an all black cast, but it also is the first LGBT+ film to win Best Picture. It is so much more important for the world and for progress, which is why it’s good that La La Land did not win.
But I would like to add that I still absolutely loved La La Land and that tearing it down because there have been so many other amazing films this season is unnecessary. They should and can all co-exist.