La La Land: Reinventing the musical

Damien Chazelle is proving himself to be a very promising young director with an original vision and a clear inspiration. ‘La La Land’ makes a wonderful addition to his roster  of films. While it feels like quite a safe film it is also very ambitious as the director attempts to mix realism and drama with a set of catchy and lyrically vibrant tunes. In my opinion he succeeds.

La La Land tells the story of two aspiring creatives in modern day Los Angeles. Mia is an aspiring actress seeking her breakout role as she serves the self-absorbed and neurotic Hollywood elite in a cafe. Sebastian is a self-appointed jazz expert and enthusiast who feels exhilarated by the challenges that meet him in his pursuit of owning a jazz club while at the same time feeling constrained by the small-time gigs that wish to stifle his creativity. They meet one another by chance and the film progresses to explore the struggle between ambition and the love they share for one another.

Gosling proves himself to have great range in this particular film as he ranges from quirky, flirtatious comedy to passionate monologues on jazz. Moreover, he is able to create a fully-rounded character with deep flaws articulated precisely and sympathetically. Furthermore, the decision to have the actor demonstrate the talent of the character they are playing heightens the sense of attachment felt to his character. Gosling is able to paint an image of his character’s arc clearly and cleanly to underline moments of dialogue that create and detail his character. Unfortunately this comes across as a considerably conventional and familiar with most of his character’s depth coming from the script rather than a fully explored backstory.

His counterpart Emma Stone is charming in her role as Mia as her character explores the David and Goliath journey of fame. The audience feels added authenticity as the actors sing their own songs live so that the faults in their voices correspond to the characters they represent. Stone articulates the struggles of the audition process expertly and gives a Marlon-Brando esque set of monologues at various points in the film in a way that simultaneously displays vulnerability and emotional richness.

Together, these characters develop a convincing and living relationship and chemistry that elicits sympathy with the characters as well as scepticism about the fake world they are surrounded by and aspire to be a part of. With the experience of starring in previous films alongside each other in similarly romantic roles Gosling and Stone are able to avoid the chemistry feeling stilted or imposing. Films such as ‘Gangster Squad’ and ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ help to create a convincing chemistry and the familiarity between these two actors help for the script and visual elements to shine through without the distraction of poor chemistry. This helps all the more during the film’s final act as the conflict between Sebastian’s success and his dreams lead to a tense confrontation which comes off as nuanced and poignant.

Chazelle continues to explore the concept of dedication to an artform through his protagonists and in his home territory is able to deliver a captivating screenplay that not only delivers beautifully phrased dialogue but convinces the audience of the merits of the respective professions in a profound and meaningful way. His homage to both jazz and the musicals calls back to the central theme of his previous work – ‘Whiplash’. The film takes a brighter approach to the subject of deep obsession The collaboration with his composer colleague Justin Hurwitz could have resulted in an array of songs that have a mismatch with the narrative however it is interwoven cleverly with a narrative that seems to have a mind of it’s own. The recurring motif of the musical accompaniment creates a narrative mark and comes to mean different things as the relationship is formed becomes more serious and is ended. The close collaboration helps to create a series of lyrics so closely bonded to the script that they are able to embellish while at the same time entertain.

Linus Sandgren should be credited for his cinematographic ability in this film as he expertly blends the feel of Los Angeles with beautiful colour schemes that set strong moods without feeling imposing such as that seen in the observatory and on the hill overlooking the sunset. Sandgren is also able to capture the feel of musicals alongside the costume designer Sophres in a way that tips it’s hat to the old classic musicals (the Casablanca’s and Singin’ in the Rains of years past).  Furthermore Sandgren gets the tone just right as he uses rotating camera pans around the characters in their monologues, wide shots in dancing montages and balances his use of long single shot pieces to compliment the tone of the scene and draw the viewer’s attention to purpose and context as well as to emphasise the split between moments and actual scenes. Sandgren builds on this display in the opening scene as the camera swoops around the subjects in one consistent shot with breathtaking beauty. Lastly, he is able to meld with the thought like narrative as the film flips from the hypothetical to the real to the sci-fi.

One particularly memorable scene takes place in the jazz club that Mia and Sebastian visit to discuss the merits of jazz. The mix of close ups on the hands of the musicians, the sparkling and passion driven monologue delivered by Sebastian and the light dips of humour create a cohesive and exhilarating scene without reliance on cheap adrenaline rushes or quips. The script quickly gets across the angry love Sebastian has for jazz as he attempts to convince Mia and by extension the audience of the relevance and beauty of jazz. In this sense, the film acts as a love-letter to those who pursue no matter the cost. Gosling and Stone’s characters are limited by those who ignore them or suppress their artistic talent until they decide to risk it all to pursue what they believe should be theirs. This film maker demonstrates that he wants creatives to succeed as he uses his critical acclaim to create a film that celebrates the pursuit and instills a well of self belief for the audience to draw from.

The editing in this film is manically frenetic as the film flips between scenes and moments with speed and tonal shift in a way that never leaves the audience bored while at the same time giving time for meaningful dialogue and fully realised scenes. When characters started singing and dancing it was blended so well that it felt as though the scene naturally progressed towards it rather than being jarred by the shift in tone.

La La Land is a confident film that opens stylishly and plays a strong hand as the brash opening song Another Day of Sun brings life to the heightened voices of the LA crowd. The title sequence registers as an homage to the genre as it attempts to reinvent itself in the modern film era without leaning on the crutch of nostalgia and heavy references. This is reflected thematically across the film as it attempts to progress the musical motif while at the same time tell a story about ambition over nostalgia. This helps to avoid Chazelle creating a kitschy nod to the films past. This motif of progression and self exploration is reflected as he expertly transitions from wide-eyed romantic sequences to satirical critiques of Hollywood’s deep flaws (absurdities and pretentiousness) to emotionally testing scenes such as those from the third act. Collectively this enables Chazelle to avoid the artificiality of a paint-by-numbers love story to a complex narrative.

The music in this film is warm and enriching as it spreads from modern jazz, to old, to musicals and to pop in a way that cleverly references the central plot and the character’s cornerstone motivation. It also pays tribute to the rich abundance of diversity in the LA music scene in a satisfying manner. City of Stars and The Fools Who Dream are great songs however almost fall into the trope of a musical song with heavy cliche. Fortunately the song uses a melody of various instruments including the piano, bells and strings alongside a morose tone. The beginning starts with a simple change in octave elevates the voice to follow and is the right of instrumental/vocals.

Overall, Chazelle has created a charming and richly celebratory musical drama complimented by two outstanding lead performances and a soundtrack that is both emotionally riveting as well as uplifting. The stylish and confident direction Chazelle takes is a bold step step away from Whiplash into new territory in a way that expertly blends tribute to old Hollywood while at the same time forging ahead in a genre unexplored for years. Damien Chazelle appears comfortable in this arena as he draws from personal passions and appreciations to depict a fresh narrative – as Mia says: “People love what other people are passionate about”.



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