Following our Trip To The Oscars screening event, Xin Yi Wang reviews Damien Chazelle’s Oscar frontrunner.
What’s in a name? “La La Land” is a title with many meanings. It represents the film’s nature as a musical, it is a nickname for the city La La Land is set in – an endearing term for Los Angeles (L.A.), with its culture of showbusiness and performance – and it reflects the fairytale quality aspiring artists and actors instil in the city. LA is a playground where dreamers go in hopes of having their wishes fulfilled: a magical land where dreams come true. This is also a perfect summary of the premise of La La Land. The film has frequently been referred to as a love letter to Los Angeles, but it is much more than that. It is a love letter to dreamers, to jazz, to musicals, to Hollywood, and to the magic of movies.
The thesis of La La Land is presented with an ensemble opening number in a freeway traffic gridlock. Beautifully crafted as the introduction to the film, it sets up the tone and themes of the film while its dancers and singers ponder about fulfilling their dreams. Impressively presented in one long take (the scene was actually shot in three, and seamlessly edited together), the beauty of the colours and choreography infuses the film with an energy that will remain consistently.
Damien Chazelle’s second feature film puts two dreamers front and centre. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who goes for audition after audition while working as a barista on the Warner Brothers Studio lot, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist and a committed jazz enthusiast who dreams of opening his own jazz club and helping to resurrect the style’s popularity. They meet, fall in love, and fuel each other’s passions, embarking together on a journey to fulfil their separate dreams.
La La Land marks Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s third film together as an onscreen couple. Their chemistry oozes off the screen, making them the only – and obvious – choice to play the characters of Mia and Sebastian. On their own, each triumphs in creating empathy and understanding for their character, allowing their respective ambitions and passions to be felt by the audience clearly. Together, they play off to each other’s strengths, showcasing the charisma from both actors. Stone portrays a full range of emotions to wonderful effect, from pure joy to soul shattering sadness; Mia constantly grabs hold of a hopeful and optimistic mindset in order to pull herself up after every down, her ambition crystal clear in her eyes. This comes to culmination near the end of the film when, in Mia’s final audition scene, the colourful background fades away and Stone dominates for a riveting, climactic moment. Sebastian, meanwhile, is portrayed with a strong stubbornness slowly softened by Mia, and his struggles and love for jazz are conveyed perfectly by Gosling. When on screen together they elevate the film to a whole new standard, yet at the same time ground it: an anchor that holds and takes you through a tale of love, dreams, heartache and passion. Their commitment shines through, whether it be learning to play the piano or learning the choreography of tap dancing, which neither lead had much experience in prior to the film. Though they’ve received slight criticism on their non-professional singing voices, it serves a purpose of helping to craft Mia and Sebastian as ordinary people and add a touch of realism to the film – a theme that is essential in what La La Land is truly trying to convey.
As a film about dreamers, its apparent optimism might be too much for the realists, but La La Land diverts those cliches and expectations. Behind its radiant colours and feel-good premise, the real world lurks. It catches up to the characters in the second half of the film, where Mia and Sebastian are forced to face reality through the question of what sacrifices their ambition will drive them to make. Chazelle has once again refused to create a simple fairytale of achieving one’s dreams. His directional debut, Whiplash (2014), explores the limits to sacrificing for ambition, and La La Land continues this exploration, if in a less extreme way.
This is not always obvious, because the film’s questions are obscured by its vibrant, old-fashioned charm. From the opening “Presented in CinemaScope” to the ending “Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.”, La La Land’s nostalgic factor is overwhelming. Though it is set in the current day – a fact its audience is reminded of every time the characters use a smartphone – it is easy to believe that we have been transported to the golden age of Hollywood where elaborate costumes and beautiful sets dominate the industry. Its references to retro Hollywood films are aplenty – Singin’ in the Rain and Rebel Without A Cause are two obvious films La La Land pays homage to, and the film remains unapologetic about its reverence for classic cinema. Chazelle proves he is self-aware by directly addressing this in the film, with Mia asking (in reference to a script she’s written), “What if they don’t like it? Do you feel like it’s too nostalgic?” Seb replies concisely, “Fuck ‘em.” This boldness heightens the escapism and joy that La La Land provides to its audiences, dazzling them with its radiant colours and set pieces, especially refreshing when compared to the visually duller and darker blockbusters of 2016. It’s hard to take your eyes off the screen.
The cinematography of La La Land is fantastic, riddled with impressive long takes through intense choreographed numbers, but is not lacking in short cuts to balance them out, helping to maintain the energy of the film. Linus Sandgren (Promised Land, American Hustle) does an unforgettable job, each shot capturing the emotions felt, conveying both huge, spectacular, wow-ing moments and small, intimate scenes. His wide angle shots of Los Angeles are beautiful to say the least, presenting the romantic fantasyland our characters live in and capturing the essence of the city seen through their eyes. (Seb: “Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a bad word?”)
The score and soundtrack are beautifully crafted. Pieces range from the big ensemble numbers of Another Day of Sun and Someone in the Crowd to small, character-revealing City of Stars. Justin Hurwitz creates a soundtrack that no doubt will become classic, effective in all ways and hitting all the right notes. Mia and Sebastian’s Theme is heartbreakingly beautiful, A Lovely Night would make you want to tap dance on the streets, and Audition (The Fools Who Dream) carries the right amount of emotional gravitas. Mandy Moore’s choreography is extremely impressive right from the beginning, allowing La La Land to stand with other musical giants on its own right.
In the end, La La Land is a beautiful reminder of why we love films so much, the emotions movies make us feel, and the escapism we can depend on movies. One could just be completely mesmerised by the presentation of every single detail on screen. The passion of Chazelle, Stone, and Gosling is felt in every frame, and La La Land will remain absolutely brilliant no matter the number of viewings.
La La Land is out now in UK cinemas. See the final trailer below: