Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
So I saw La La Land again and I’ve been inspired to go a little more in depth and analyse it a bit. If you haven’t seen the movie yet (fix that), you probably shouldn’t read this, as I’m going to be going in-depth on specific scenes and songs. You’ve been warned.
In my review I called the film ‘a love letter to all performing arts, encouraging the love of music and art and leading a life worth living’. I’d like to amend that slightly, to ‘a love letter to those passionate enough to follow their dreams and pursue the performing arts’. I make the distinction because while the film certainly adores the performing arts, it makes a point of spotlighting the artists who make it all happen. In essence, the art forms are entirely reliant on people passionate enough to put everything on the line to bring them to life.
This shoutout to the passionate is most clearly depicted in the song ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’; Mia’s audition at the end of the film, where she tells the story of her aunt who jumped in to the freezing river in Paris just for the thrill of it.
Leapt, without looking
And She tumbled into the Seine!
The water was freezing
she spent a month sneezing
but said she would do it, again.”
The act of jumping into the river can be seen as an allegory for artists putting everything on the line for pursuing the risky world of the arts, and doing it with a genuine joy without regrets. The song goes on to encourage this with its chorus:
“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”.
The idea of risks associated with an artist’s life is pretty perfectly encapsulated in a tiny scene where Mia is on the phone to her mother, Seb casually listening in another room. My memory isn’t good enough to quote the scene exactly, but she says things to the effect of “It’s a one-woman-show…… no, I’m paying to do it” and “He’s great, he’s going to start his own club. No he hasn’t opened it yet. He’s saving, I think.” The whole film up to this point has been very romantic and idealistic about pursuing the arts, not showing the realistic financial hazards, so relatively subtle shifts in dialogue and expression in Gosling’s performance indicate to the audience his second thoughts about blindly following his dreams, setting in motion his career in John Legend’s band. (by the way, I appreciate the sparing use of John Legend, any more of him and his lack of acting experience would really begin to show). It was a simple scene, but I appreciated the subtlety and visuality of how this shift was portrayed.
Diverting from strict analysis for a second, something the film did really excellent was visual storytelling. The film has a lot of time skips, and following each the film is able to communicate exactly what changes the characters have gone through without a single line of exposition. The best example of this is at the end of the film. [[[MAJOR SPOILERS]]] by the way; don’t read this bit until you’ve seen the movie. [[[The first thing we see is a recreation of an earlier scene where a big celebrity orders coffee at the WB lot, only Mia is now ordering. Immediately we know that she’s made it as an actress in a way that’s super satisfying for the audience, having seen her so close to giving up just a few scenes earlier. We then see her walk into a big house with a fancy breakfast finished, but not cleaned up on the table, a card on a shelf with ‘congratulations’ written on it and flowers. From this mise en scene we can understand just how successful she’s become instantly, yet how humble she has remained. There are tonnes of similar examples through the rest of the film.]]]
At this point I could continue to give examples that prove what I think the film is really about, but the more I write the more I want to just gush about the bits that I really like. The way I look at it, this piece is much more for me than it is for anyone else, so fuck it, I say!
I ADORE the first two numbers. If any of the musical numbers could be considered gratuitous, ‘Another Day of Sun’ would be the most obvious candidate, not featuring any characters from the film nor progressing the story. What it does, however, is establish the films narrative tone and basic themes:
“Summer Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene”
Despite not being sung by her, this could easily be seen as Mia’s backstory. I’m not sure if that was the intention, but I buy it. It certainly features the same attitude that she does. Anyhow, that’s not really the reason I like the scene. I like it because it’s fun, catchy, and a god damn spectacle. The choreography, colour, movement and camerawork in this number are all absolutely phenomenal and hook you straight into the film from the word go with its infectious energy. I simply can’t believe the amount of tremendous coordination that number must have taken to put together, and it absolutely pays off.
‘Someone in the Crowd’ functions similarly to ‘Another Day of Sun’ in terms of establishing the tone of the film only this time, inserting Mia and her story to the mix. It starts fun and exciting, representing how it is to be in LA and reaching for her dreams. The number includes very extravagant imagery, including a champagne glass overflowing, evoking the hedonistic ‘roaring 20s’. It then drops into silence and focuses on her loneliness in a sea of people, seeing that she is indeed struggling with the whole experience, only to end in fireworks, also evoking the 20s, symbolising her world’s indifference to her. Again, the colour, blocking and camerawork all give this number a great infectious energy and it’s just fun. No way around it.
Something I didn’t notice the first time I saw the film is that every number is appear to be one take, or actually is done one take. I feel this is important for two reasons. 1. It evokes the feeling of a stage musical, and takes advantage of their quality of sweeping you off your feet and keeping you there. 2. It only adds to the spectacle. It simply makes the numbers much more impressive and enjoyable to experience.
The third big number ‘A Lovely Night’ is 100% an allusion to Broadway musicals of the early 20th century. The LA sunset backdrop evokes heavily the kind of set that might be set up for that type of production, right down to the placement of a bench, to do sitting tap on. Not to mention the full blown Gene Kelly style tap number. I don’t have tonnes to say about this one, I just really enjoyed it. This is the number that really nails the chemistry between Seb and Mia, which maintains excellence through the film.
Speaking of evoking a different medium, the entire sequence inside the planetarium was very clearly meant to evoke silent cinema right from its music and visual style to the fact that they don’t speak for the entire sequence. Here are my favourite little allusions to early cinema in that scene. 1. The whole situation: breaking into somewhere you shouldn’t be for a private romantic moment is such a classic romantic trope in terms of early cinema. 2. The moment where Seb polishes the handle before Mia pulls it: this was the moment where I properly realised what the film was doing, such a typical little moment that you could absolutely see Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton doing. 3. The moment when they are dancing through the stars. In my review I mentioned the film incorporating a fusion of modern film-making and classic forms of performance art. This is the moment I was referring to. It’s absolutely stunning and I think it looks phenomenal. It’s one of those film moments that you just wish you could live, it’s really beautiful. 4. The big finish on them kissing (for the first time in the film, it having been teased multiple times) with the “that’s all folks” circle closing in on them (I have no idea what that technique is called). Classic early cinema. I love that it almost convinces you that the film is over just on that scene.
A scene I want to draw attention to is where Seb and Mia fight. I just want to point out that it’s probably the most believable fight I’ve ever seen in a film. It builds really slowly, every point brought up is completely in character and the performances are pitch perfect. Gosling and Stone really are excellent choices and are both phenomenal actors. I don’t have anything else to say about it, but I thought it was really great. Another aspect of the film I really appreciated was the lighting. The whole endeavour was done flawlessly, especially in the one-take numbers, but the points I appreciated most were the moments of spotlight. Not only do they look fantastic, but each characters’ spotlights are distinct from one another. Mia’s spotlights envelop her body and leave her glowing, while the rest of her surroundings are completely shrouded in darkness, much like the effect that is aimed for in theatre, as she is an actress. Seb’s spotlights have a visible cone of light surrounding him from the source to the ground, much like any musician on stage would receive. It’s a small detail, but I think it adds a lot of personality and depth to the film.
More Spoilers: [[[The final sequence was one of my favourite in the whole movie. Damien Chazelle clearly knows how to end a movie, as Whiplash’s ending was also really excellent. I interpret the whole sequence as two things. 1. It was a representation of what Mia and Seb’s relationship/lives could have been in a more romantic and idealistic world, clearly what they’re both imagining. And 2. How the film may have played in early romance cinema. It’s jam packed with tropes and techniques classic to early film (silhouette, overemphasised performance, literally filming a globe with a plane over it to convey travel, painted sets and backdrops and one part literally has them on an old projector playing out the birth of their child). The thing that really hits me hard about the end of the movie is how bittersweet it is. Both Seb and Mia achieved their dreams, the main theme of the entire film, but both reminisce on what could have been, the lack of the final note in the music symbolising the unsatisfying ending to their relationship. The moment right before Seb starts playing the piano tears me to shreds. The emotion pouring out of both protagonists as they see each other for the first time in five years is overwhelming and when you see Seb hovering over the piano you know exactly what he’s going to play, and it’s just heartbreaking. The whole film uses this musical motif to remind the audience of the various points of emotion prior where it was played and holy hell did it work, if simply anticipating its being played set off the waterworks.]]]
At approximately 2000 words, I think I’ve run out of things I want to say about La La Land right now. Like I said about half way through, this was mainly for me. I need to express myself about this movie, it really breathed life into me. If anyone actually makes it all the way through, let me know what you think of my opinions and start a discussion in the comments, I could talk about this movie for days, it truly blew me away.