by: Krissy Trujillo
Nostalgia’s prowess, exhibited in all its might, in one of 2016’s best films, La La Land…
Nostalgia. It’s a word that captures in its entirety the essence of Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) modern-day movie musical, La La Land. For anyone raised on the classic MGM musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, La La Land will move you immediately. As the film’s title card opens up to the word “CINEMASCOPE,” die-hard musical aficionados will find a smile drawing across their face as they are whisked back in time to an era of Cole Porter tunes1, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers twirling across the floor, or to an epic and unforgettable ballet number in Paris. Notably, the last film to inspire this sort of nostalgic bliss was Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 Academy Award winner, The Artist. However, where The Artist took inspiration from the classics and sold itself as a silent period piece, La La Land captures the joy, color, and humor of the “talkies,” and brings these stylings into the present day. Proving the power of sentimentality in film, The Artist grabbed ten Oscar nominations for its efforts, but remarkably, La La Land has topped that achievement, grabbing fourteen, tying it with 1997’s Titanic and 1950’s All About Eve2 for total number of nominations.
La La Land begins with a showy musical number set in the ever famous Los Angeles’ freeway traffic, and it is immediately evident Chazelle admires the classics as the story arc that follows mirrors the exact formula of a great musical. Two people meet, one is generally turned off by the other, and the other one thinks very highly of themselves – think Debbie Reynolds3 as Cathy Selden in Singin’ In the Rain, where she’s a serious stage actress, and Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a movie star, and Selden then pops out of a cake at a party not ten minutes later. In La La Land, we have Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a serious jazz musician who gets fired from his job and for extra cash plays in a synthetic 80s pop cover band at a party where he meets Mia (Emma Stone). He and Mia then have a precious Fred and Ginger styled sarcastic banter turned tap number, and if movie musicals have taught us anything, it’s that starting things off with a little soft shoe always leads to a fine romance.
The first official date for Sebastian and Mia begins with a viewing of Rebel Without a Cause, which inspires a visit to the real life location of the Griffith Observatory. Here we get our first pas de deux when the couple enter the planetarium and are literally lifted into the night sky as their silhouettes dance across the stars in a truly beautiful and fantastical scene. Chazelle’s characters live in their own dreams as they are both artists, and it only makes sense that in their own minds, their romance begins in the stars – though this foreshadows that they may also be star-crossed lovers.
In continuation with the time-tested formula, Sebastian and Mia’s entire summer affair is told predominantly in the form of a montage, with neon lights and signs included. As months fall by, Sebastian pursues a musical career, and Mia writes a play, but cracks begin to appear in their relationship as the rigors of life begin to tear the lovers apart. There’s drama, a break-up, and then an agent calls Sebastian looking for Mia. Sebastian, acting in Mia’s best interest, personally brings her reluctantly to her audition and when she does, she gives us a song that encapsulates La La Land’s poignant message, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” Following Mia’s audition, the lovers’ star-crossed tale takes hold, and while they are still in love and support each other, they go off on their separate ways, looking to make their dreams a reality. Five years later, a now famous Mia walks into a jazz bar with her husband, not noticing the bar’s name is a name she had recommended to her once boyfriend, Sebastian. Suddenly, the bar’s decor seems familiar, the ambiance, the setting, and finally, the name, and then Sebastian takes the stage and plays a song that Mia remembers….
The spotlight dims on Sebastian as we are whisked into another fantastical dream. One where Sebastian and Mia stayed together. One that shows the life that could have been. The final dream. The number splits from the home-movies-that-could-have-been to a beautiful second pas de deux. Reminiscent of the epic ballet number from An American in Paris, Mia and Sebastian dream of what they could have had in their own romanticized reality. The number ends, Mia leaves with a nod to Sebastian, and the star-crossed dreamers part ways.
Chazelle’s vision of mid-century musicals is fully embraced not only through the structure of the storytelling, but the cinematography as well. Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) shot the film in gorgeous 35mm, capturing every magnificent Los Angeles sunset in its truest form on the widest lens4 and every dance number in impressively long takes. The use of light in the film is soft and natural, but its colors are brilliant and true. There’s no blue or green screens, just the City of Angels existing as the truest of backdrops.
Despite the time, marriages, and careers that pulled Sebastian and Mia apart and kept them from being together in the end, it was their love and support for each other that allowed them to move forward. La La Land serves as a reminder to always follow your passion and to be “the fools who dream.” Chazelle truly grasps the romanticism of the Golden Age, the heightened dramatics of theatre, and the dreams of performers. La La Land is sweet. It’s beautiful. It’s magical. It takes us away to a dream-like reality where we can dance in the sky. And in our modern times where realism has become a bit bleak, we could all use a little magic5.
- “Stereophonic Sound” from Silk Stockings was all I kept singing in my head as soon as it started. [↩]
- All About Eve is in my top five favorite films of all time. I aspire to be Margo Channing. Always. [↩]
- Rest in Peace. [↩]
- A la Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis or An American in Paris. [↩]
- As Blanche Dubois would say! [↩]