Cinema is beautiful thing. Yes, it’s a cliche to say it but that’s the truth. I can’t tell you when the last time was I saw a recent ‘Award’ caliber film that had me smiling throughout the film. Lately, many of the awards season films can be so dour that you’ll want to jump off the cliff or have a milkshake afterwards to ease your depression(the latter part is just me, perhaps). Cynicism seems to be a driving force in todays age. This isn’t always the case nor is it exactly a bad thing. The beauty of cinema is the wide range of emotions any film can make you feel, good or bad.
There are countless films I’ve walked out feeling charged about it but only weeks after felt worn out, believing it wasn't as good as I had remembered. La La Land is not one of them.
I saw this film back in October at the Austin Film Festival. I had never been to an advanced screening before. So naturally there was a lot of hype. This was a Damien Chazelle film after all, the man behind the terrific Whiplash and now he was doing a musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
When I first saw the film, I was with a very distinct audience. Most of them were film buffs and came into the film charged up, ready for the experience. This can definitely play a factor into judging a film. Of course how could you not? The film opens wonderfully in the morning traffic along the swirly highways of Los Angeles. The camera pushes in seamlessly on a woman and she starts singing. The melody is uplifting, the choreography is flawless and shortly after we get the titles, in the same style as the musicals of the 50’s. It was like watching a live broadway show because the titles were shortly followed by thunderous applause from the audience, I was one of them.
It’s hard not to when you’re with a crowd who’s as enthusiastic as you are. This is both a blessing and a curse at the same time. You want to feel charged up but you don’t want to be blind to any flaws.
I was enamored by the film, couldn’t wait until it was released worldwide. Then it came out, got the praise I knew it would. I wanted to see it a second time, to see if it really was that good. I liked it enough but how would it play for me with a different, more subdued crowd?
In some ways, this style of filmmaking reminded me of Tarantino. No they’re not at all similar in terms of tone, bust like how Chazelle embraces the aesthetics of the 50’s musicals, Tarantino’s recent Hateful Eight similarly embraces the old school filmmaking of epic films of the 50’s and 60’s, intermissions in between, long shots of nature. Yet, both Chazelle and Tarantino are careful to mix the old school style with the modern filmmaking.
The film deals in archetypes. You have Sebastian(Ryan Gosling) as the struggling jazz pianist who wants to open club dedicated to old jazz music and Mia(Emma Stone) as the struggling actress. They initially resent each other, but later see eye to eye and form a long sustaining romance. Sound familiar? Singin' in the Rain, another all timer for me. But what keeps this film from being derivative? Its ability to wink at the audience and know what it is. After the ambitious opening, we’re dropped in to the real world. I was surprised how down to earth the film is. We quickly follow Mia and her audition. Coffee is dropped on her as soon as she tries to leave work for her audition.
Mia’s second encounter with Sebastian is not what it seems in the trailer. She hears him passionately play old school jazz and is the only one who appreciates him. Instead of passionately kissing, like we see in the tv spots, he bumps in front of her and walks away. In their third encounter, at a party, she requests the band he’s playing with to play A Flock of Seagulls because she knows he considers himself a “serious" musician and playing such tunes is below him. It’s subtle moments like that that allow the film to poke fun at itself.
Yet while it’s poking fun at itself, it’s also very serious about what it’s doing. After their third encounter together, Mia and Sebastian walk away from the party and go into a dance number. The choreography is flawless and they’re in the moment until....a phone rings. So what does that mean? These are two struggling artists who have high aspirations and fantasties of themselves, they're quickly brought down to earth with a single ring of their cell phone. It’s both funny and totally in tune with character.
Yet while the film brings us back to reality, we’re quickly thrown back into their fantasy. Their exploration of the dome(pure cinema by the way) is another example of this.
About half-way into the film we’re thrown into the film’s more gritty side. Sebastian can’t make ends meet; Mia’s auditions remain unsuccessful. Then we meet Sebastian’s friend Keith, a fellow musician , played wonderfully by John Legend. Keith points out the truth to Sebastian; if you want to save the classical jazz, how can you do that if you don’t try to create something new? The film is a metaphor for itself.
Things go great for Sebastian at this point. He takes a job as Keith’s pianist and starts making ends meet. This is where the film really shows its self-awareness. We’re thrown into not the whimsical style of the 50’s filmmaking but thrown into modern hip-hop music. Sebastian does well for himself but Mia is still struggling as an actress and a playwright. Shortly after their relationship crumbles. Mia points out that Sebastian isn’t fully happy with what he’s doing and Sebastian berates her for being ‘just an actress.’ She leaves. She opens her one woman show and few are in attendance. All seems lost for her and their relationship, so it seems.
But of course, that can’t be. She gets a phone call for an audition and she’s successful. Sebastian encourages her to pursue her career and it seems like everything will be wrapped up in a neat ribbon. So at this point, you may be thinking that everything will be fine and they’ll get married and live happily ever after, right?
Nope and that’s the brilliance of this whole piece. Mia does become a star but at a cost for the audience; she doesn’t get Sebastian. Sebastian doesn’t get Mia but he gets his jazz club. This is where Chazelle powerfully mixes the old and the new. Mia goes to Sebastian’s jazz club with her husband. She sees Sebastian and has a vision.
Like the many old musicals that’s its been inspired by, we’re drawn into a long montage of the hero and heroine in a waltz before the big climax. In this case, we see everything turning out the way we’d normally expect. They dance in these exotic set pieces and we see them settling down together, married with a child. This may have been the ending we may have gotten in the 50’s but not the one in today’s world. Why? Why can’t they be together? Because that’s life. They went their own ways. It’s a story of love but also a story of two people who were crucial to each other’s success at a crucial moment in their lives, but at the same time, had to form their own paths to succeed. Such is life. It’s both poignant, sad, yet, leaves you feeling happy at the same time, a wide range of emotions.
And that’s the beauty of cinema and the genius of this masterpiece.