La La Land reminds us why we go to the movies
“How can you be a revolutionary when you’re so busy being a traditionalist?”
La La Land challenges it’s viewers to put themselves in the shoes of Seb, portrayed by Ryan Gosling, and ask themselves this question. In the movie, Keith (played by John Legend) uses this question to taunt Seb, convincing him that the route to making genuinely revolutionary music is breaking free from his purist Jazz roots.
The same question applies to movies themselves. In an industry dominated by mass marketed franchises on one side, and expansive sociopolitical musings on the other, is there room for a good old fashioned musical? In an era when ‘great’ and ‘different’ have become practically synonymous, can a simple love story — the relatable kind, that has been told a million times before — possibly be considered revolutionary? La La Land is evidence that some tropes never go out of fashion.
For all the hype and noise around it, what struck me most about La La Land was the raw, unsophisticated joy to be had within it. The protagonists are Seb, a struggling Jazz pianist and Mia, played by Emma Stone, a struggling actor. La La Land is the story of their relationship, from it’s sexy beginning to it’s bittersweet conclusion.
Set against the backdrop of the stunning Los Angeles, the movie paints its leads as flawed dreamers — fighting for a break in Jazz music and acting, both brutally unwelcoming industries, with little more than sheer talent and a deep, inspiring passion for their respective fields. Watching Seb sit down at a piano and convey more through melody than words could ever capture, we are introduced to his understated, under-appreciated genius. Later on, Mia toils away, day and night, on a play she writes, organizes, and is the sole cast member of, even without the guarantee of an audience.
Through his leads, director Damien Chazelle plumbs human nature to explore why some of us follow our dreams with such a passionate fervor. Why do we persist, even when the odds are thoroughly stacked against us? La La Land tells us that as great as romantic love is, the greater love is a love of ideals, which translates into a love for work and ambition.
La La Land may be simple, but not simplistic. The movie’s visual aesthetic is arguably the most unique since 2009’s Avatar. Every single shot is composed in a way that can only be described as a live painting. The city of Los Angeles is Chazelle’s canvas, and he washes it in soft pastel hues, that serve to humanize the glamor and ethereality of Hollywood. The cinematography and color grading lend a poetic and overwrought sense of beauty to the proceedings. When Seb and Mia finally kiss at Griffith Observatory, the entire scene is perfect, as if that moment was long written in the stars.
The music and choreography use technology to liven up a traditionalist ethos effectively. The movie opens with a massive musical number in the middle of a Los Angeles freeway. This scene, shot outdoors on a busy thoroughfare, is full of long cuts and fluid camera motion capturing literally hundreds of extras. This is impossible without the relatively lightweight, mobile digital cameras that modern directors often use for large outdoor scenes. Another iconic scene, Mia and Seb’s first dance, is shot on location in Griffith Park at night. The spectacular sunset backdrop and lighting effects that make the scene pop would be impossible in low light, without the digital color grading that is brilliantly applied in post production.
The songs themselves tell a similar story. They are reminiscent of musicals from the 30s and 40s — slick, simple and just a little pulpy. And yet, it all seems sharpened and enhanced with modern sensibilities and recording techniques. Both leads are good singers, and that Ryan Gosling as a pianist is a revelation. The melodies themselves toe a fine line between authentic Jazz and cross cultural appeal, as is expected with film soundtrack music.
For all it’s overwrought emotion, La La Land works best in its subtler moments — Seb hopelessly trying to negotiate his setlist with a by-the-books restaurant manager, Mia intentionally requesting he play an out and out commercial song to bug him, or Seb turning around to walk back to his car after spending 10 minutes walking her to hers. La La Land, through its simple boy-meets-girl, dreams and ambitions story, reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place.