Makes you go “La La” all the way
Written and directed by – Damien Chazelle
Starring – Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
In the rapidly evolving medium of cinema, we sometimes find movies which looks more like a throwback to an earlier genre, and if it’s a landmark film, it will not just stick to being a tribute, but will revisit and mould the genre to fit with changing times. We had the timeless Chinatown (1974) revisiting film noir of the 50s, there was the Artist (2011) which was a modern ode to the Silent era of films. Now, we may have La La Land, a homage to the classic musicals of the 50s and 60s, made for the 21st century.
After a brilliant debut with the critically acclaimed Whiplash which wowed audience with its fresh and visceral depiction of cut-throat competition and ambition in the music Industry, director Damien Chazelle now shows his versatility by making using of the medium of the musical to show the dreams and aspirations of 2 love-struck individuals in the dreamy world of Los Angeles (musically titled La La Land). Stylistically, the 2 films couldn’t have been more different, but the underlying theme remains the same – that of pursuing one’s passion amidst compromises, and staying true to oneself.
The film revolves around 2 individuals, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and playwright who makes ends meet being an on-studio Barista waitress; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz pianist who dreams of owning a jazz bar as a means to rekindle the glory days of Jazz, while in the meantime making do with part time performances of Christmas carols in a restaurant. The story revolves around how they encounter each other and fall in love amidst their struggle to realise their dreams, and the eternal conflict of compromising between following a passion or having a relation.
However, La La Land is getting all the rave reviews not because of the retelling of a common story of striving to achieve dreams and the compromises that are required; it’s how the film tells it visually in a setting that oscillates between dream-like and ethereal at times and superficial and mundane at others, as only a place like LA can. We get a glimpse of this dichotomy in the very opening scene, a breath-taking sequence where a mile-long ugly traffic on the flyover is turned into a magical setting as the frustrated drivers and passengers decide to bide the time by breaking into an elaborate song and dance (“Another day of Sun”). The sequence is shown in a single shot as the camera navigates from vehicle to vehicle and pries through hordes of people singing, dancing and flipping along the road, and is probably the most ambitious camera shot in the entire film.
La La Land is in many ways purely visual storytelling, as the visual style is the film’s language that drives the story and mood. The first half hour of the film feels like it belongs to the playful Hollywood musicals of the 50s (Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris) – high on energy with song and dance sequences, seemingly almost exaggerated and superfluous, and saturated with splashes of vibrant colors. Occasional disappointment is almost immediately replaced with enthusiasm for the future; After yet another failed audition, Mia is cajoled by her roomies to go partying into the night, and as they do, we can’t help but hum to the sequence in “Someone in the Crowd”. The camera is never static, it constantly shifts and pans and revolves, but not in a shaky cam manner (which seems to be a fad these days, and makes the audience nauseate). Even in normal scenes, the film uses visual cues to heighten the contrast of the protagonists not being just “someone in the crowd” – in one scene, Mia is shown in a soothing yellow summer dress in contrast to bikini clad girls in a pool party, in another scene when Seb plays Christmas carols in a restaurant, the background recedes to show him as if playing a soulful jazz alone, not for the crowd and the manager’s fancies.
Once Mia and Seb come closer together, the focus shifts from the crowd to the 2 main characters. The film takes a departure from the 50s musicals and lands in the 60s – less of elaborate choreographed sequences and more on duets and an equal measure of character development (akin to Sound of Music, My Fair Lady). This allows us to get into the characters, their relation to each other and with the city. Mia aspires to be an actress but less for the glamour and more for the scope of creativity, she also tries her hand at play-writing. Seb is a purist by heart who laments at the decaying culture of LA of our generation (“where people worship everything and value nothing”) and especially the decline in the Jazz culture. The film continues to oscillate between such reality and dream-like sequences (in a lovely sequence where they dance amongst stars in the auditorium).
The 2nd half of the film focuses more on the underlying theme of the conflict of staying true to one’s passions amidst changing times. At one point, Seb teams up with his school-mate Keith (John Legend in a cameo) in a Jazz band which offers a high pay, but is dismayed to discover the band’s more techno pop-oriented style. Keith chides him for staying stuck in the past and urges him and his music to move forward (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future”). But, does such a revolution come at the cost of distorting the very essence of the genre? Chazelle seems to give the answer in the way he has made the film, while La La Land is made for our time, it remains a tribute to the musicals of the 50s and 60s. But, however noble be the attempt, the film does appear to not maintain the high standards it had set out. As the the 2nd half does take a back-seat at times, it seems to fall a bit short of engaging on a deeper level. If it strived to emulate Jacques Demy’s French musicals (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort), great films which were inspired from the best of Hollywood musicals of the 50s and 60s and went one better (like Spaghetti westerns did to American westerns), it must be said that La La Land is greatly inspired but hits a few off-key notes. As Seb describes Jazz as something you can’t just hear (“You’ve to see it”), similarly the film succeeds in making its sweet imagery sing, but narrowly fell short of making us “feel it”. Even the somewhat average singing abilities of the 2 lead actors may be accepted, after all not everyone can be a Julie Andrews or a Gene Kelly! (in fact this actually gives it a more realistic feel, after all they portray aspiring artists who are yet to fine tune their craft).
However, as if to correct the shortcoming in the 2nd half, the film does redeem itself in the final 15 minutes. Without revealing any spoilers, it includes a finale as good as any among recent films – in an explosion of light and colors, through a wordless montage of dazzling scenes, the lives of Mia and Seb are played out (both real and imaginary, both what had been and what could have been), and by the end we would finally be able to “feel it” briefly. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Seb had said “This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting”. That probably sums up the film’s themes as good as any. It’s about facing conflict and compromising to achieve your passion while staying true to it. In the end, no matter what, the journey is very, very exciting. And so too, is La La Land.
My Rating – 4.0/5
(a self-proclaimed cinephile)