Artists have the most romantic lifestyles. They love their jobs, but their hard work largely goes unrewarded. It’s difficult to find success as an artist, particularly in a city like Los Angeles, where dreams are big and the competition is fierce. But when that dream comes true, the magic will make all the pain worth it.
As a musical about Hollywood hopefuls, it’s no surprise that magic happens to be La La Land’s forte.
La La Land twirls us into a radiantly colourful Los Angeles, where jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) are struggling to make ends meet. But through chance encounters, the two fall in love with each other. However, as their careers get in the way of their love life, the two have to decide on which one is more important.
This dreamy wonderland is captured beautifully in CinemaScope, an anamorphic lens generally reserved for old-school epics. And in the spirit of old Hollywood musicals, La La Land emulates the same visual and aural style.
In other words, La La Land borrows from a lot of Hollywood classics, referencing them through allusions and using them as inspiration. La La Land echoes two particular movies: Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain. Casablanca influences much of the story and dialogue, whereas Singin’ in the Rain inspires much of the music and setting.
This movie is so starry-eyed that Hollywood glamour can be heard in every note.
La La Land is infectious with its catchy musical numbers, and meticulous with its rehearsed dance scenes. Though the entire movie was shot on location, the anamorphic widescreen gives it a strange aura. Because of the way the aspect ratio is stretched, wide skyline shots become even wider. As a result, multiple scenes possess the scale of real locations with all the charm of a constructed set.
Along with the romantic story, the movie truly feels like a living daydream!
While most award-season Oscar bait feel sluggish at best, La La Land is at just the right tempo. The pacing is brisk, hitting all the right beats as the runtime progresses. The film organically alternates between song and dialogue. We get a little bit of cute dialogue and presto! The scene explodes into colour and vivacity with another musical number.
It should be said that, like a lot of other Hollywood musicals, La La Land carries a tongue-in-cheek spirit. It’s a musical that knows it’s a musical, a love story that is aware of its romance. Thus, many of the jokes are delivered with a wink and a smile.
That’s not to say that La La Land isn’t sincere. The movie truly believes in love, passion and romance. There’s just a clever tone underlining all of the jaunty song and dance. In one scene, Sebastian is hired to play music at a restaurant. The restaurant manager, played by J.K. Simmons, asks him to stick to the set list: “I don’t wanna hear the free jazz.”
Ironically, Simmons played a cruel jazz instructor in Whiplash, which happens to be the previous film by writer-director Damien Chazelle. How cheeky.
But despite all the critical acclaim La La Land has been receiving, there’s been a disturbance among the more intellectual critics. “Form follows function” is a phrase that’s been passed around a lot. It generally means that the form of a movie (e.g. the genre and its aesthetics) is dictated by the function of a movie (i.e. the story and its themes).
And unfortunately, La La Land seems to be all form and no function.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote a scathing review titled “The Empty Exertions of La La Land.” Beside the lack of artistic inspiration expressed by Sebastian and Mia, Brody describes the two characters as objects as opposed to subjects. We know nothing about the two of them outside of their superficial passions. He likes jazz; she likes acting. Is that all?
The result is a story that uses coincidence in place of dramatic choice. The troubled relationship between Sebastian and Mia doesn’t feel motivated, but the music swells in volume all the same. Thus, La La Land’s music doesn’t serve the story, it merely acts as the surface. As Brody writes: “There’s even more verve in the musical parodies of Popstar than in the strenuous emptiness, forced whimsy, and programmed emotion of La La Land.”
Is La La Land really that contradictory? Is it really all style and no substance?
I hate to admit it, but I’m a sucker for Hollywood musicals. They serenade me into a sense of joy with its undeniable charm. And La La Land, even with its limited repertoire, somehow brings me that same invigoration.
Looking back now, I can definitely see La La Land’s narrative flaws. As a film student, I’m a stickler for proper cinematic function. The assertions that Brody brings up are not only valid, they challenge the emotional integrity of the entire film.
And yet, in spite of its thematic discord, I can’t help but feel the harmony in its soul.
La La Land is a story about love. Whether it’s a love for art or a love for someone special, love is an indescribable sensation. You can’t explain why you love it, you just do. You feel it in your heart. And similarly, we are drawn into La La Land, magically and inexplicably.
We waltz with Sebastian and Mia as they fall in love. We stumble with them as they compromise their dreams for each other. And in the movie’s sweeping finale, we feel a crescendo of emotions. We can’t help but reminisce on what could’ve happened instead. But in the end, we’re glad to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Or as Rick says to Elsa in Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”
La La Land is a definite crowd pleaser. Time will tell if it becomes a classic like Casablanca or Singin’ in the Rain. But for me personally, I’ll always have fond memories of La La Land.