|Scene from La La Land|
With Oscar Sunday less than 72 hours away, it's crunch time for those wanting think pieces and last minute predictions for all of the major nominees. While I have done extensive work on this blog, I felt like director Damien Chazelle's La La Land was something special. That is why I am proud to announce that I have published my own analytical essay "What's Old is New Again: An Exploration of the Themes of 'La La Land'" exploring the themes found in the film; ranging from why it is important to compromise, the impact of nostalgia, and why going off script is sometimes important. The following is an excerpt from the essay, which is currently available on Amazon for free (purchase it here) from February 24 until the 27th. Check it out and feel free to get caught up in the magic of one of this century's best musicals all over again.
“A Technicolor world made out of music and machine”
Director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a movie that centers around the characters of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). With whimsical numbers penned by Justin Hurwitz, the film is a hybrid of old and new, real and fake, the individual and the group. The film just happens to focus on an intersecting relationship that isn’t meant to be, but is so infectious in the way that all Hollywood movie romances are. To an extent, Chazelle plays into every trope of a romantic comedy, but with elements of existential dread and – of course – musical numbers.
The audience may follow Mia and Sebastian through their lives for two hours, but there is a brief realization that Chazelle gives. This isn’t just their story. It’s one that has influenced generations to come to Hollywood, CA and make their voice heard. After all, it was where most of the musicals that the film references literally were created: on the backlots of the various big studios. In this case, the Warner Bros. studio lot is home to the action of Mia and Sebastian, gazing in awe at the artifice being made to help create escapism for an unseen audience as well as provide opportunities for the characters on screen.
Before anyone is introduced, there is a nostalgic hybrid of imagery and sound coming at the audience. The company, Summit Entertainment, has their logo in black and white while presented in the boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio, better known as “Academy Standard.” The technique is common for early cinema, whose technique was limited. The first shot of the film briefly holds the Academy Standard as it flashes the colorful logo for “Filmed in Cinemascope.” In the moment that follows, the frame expands to Cinemascope’s full screen aspect ratio of 2:35:1. The nostalgic logo is also met with bright sunny skies and color.
Before it cuts below to a cavalcade of automobiles, it plays Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Actually written in 1882, the familiar triumphant tune alludes to the image of battle. The cars below eventually cut in with their own diegetic sound. The quick transition through cultural history has an even richer texture as a variety of musical genres blare from their speakers. The film’s script lists the various audio samples as featuring the genres of: prog rock, opera, hip-hop, French ballads, techno, and a radio interview. These moments are heard sparingly, but give context to the rich diversity that is “La La Land,” or Hollywood. Everyone wants to go there and make a name for themselves, but as Tchaikovsky and the Cinemascope logo suggests, it’s a battle that’s been raging through history.
The movie could’ve stopped on any of these cars and told a fascinating story. In fact, the one that the camera winds up on isn’t Mia or Sebastian. Neither of the main actors are seen for the next six minutes. What is seen is a woman sitting in a car in traffic singing along to a piano track on the radio. It’s no different than the other cars around her, but it’s the song that kicks off the movie; bringing the themes together in a dizzying collage. The opening lines that she sings may very well be spoilers for the rest of the film.
With less than two minutes of screen time, this specific driver has a clear back story. At 17, she left her boyfriend for a career in Hollywood. Why? She just knew that it was right. Breaking the fourth wall, she jumps out of the car and begins to dance along the highway. More passengers exit their cars, including a man who has his own back story. With little money to his credit, he took a chance on his dreams, acknowledging that it may be insane. As the song continues, new individuals take the camera’s focus. Skateboards and bicycles roll through traffic as a live band plays out of the back of a moving van. Everyone is dressed in primary colors, shining like an MGM musical background character.
In one of the few cases where the film features a choir of vocals, the many nameless singers sing “Another Day of Sun.” What started as dancing to a simple piano ballad became an elaborate production, with many jumping on the roofs of their cars to do a routine choreographed by Mandy Moore. Their elation and optimism for the road ahead suggests that nothing can get them down. The audience watching will never know where that goes. As they enter their cars at the end of the number amid rhythmic car horns, they sing one last time in harmony before the title pops up in a nostalgic font.
Underneath that font can be seen a gorgeous widescreen shot of the road ahead. The scene was shot on the intersecting ramps for the 110 and 105 freeways. While the image itself is enough to suggest poignancy, this stretch of manmade land has more symbolism in store. The 110 freeway is commonly referred to as the Hollywood Freeway. It paints a picture of optimism and a literal road to success. Everyone wants to go there, whether it be the two singing drivers who mirror Mia and Sebastian’s own struggles, the people dancing on top of cars, or even the Latina dancer who busts a move as a crowd cheers her on. This is a land of diverse opportunity, and Chazelle manages to shoot it with the appearance of one long take, which helps to make the world appear more fluid and desirable.
Without introducing any significant characters, the film has managed to convey every one of its themes with a confidence that most movies wouldn’t have. It’s bold enough that the film opens not with a song by a significant character, but with a random person who will never be heard from again. Their optimism overwhelms, causing what’s to follow appear in a dreamlike routine where everything is possible; including dancing in traffic with people from different walks of life. The literal road to success lies ahead, and everyone is excited to get there. The song may be specific, but it features universal emotions that cause everyone to sing together. It would take too long to hear everyone’s tale, so Mia and Sebastian must do.
The subtext goes further. While most of the dancers are youthful and seeking a chance to shape pop culture’s future, the film is already drenched in nostalgia. Much like the novelty opening credits, the actual costumes and dance routines are reminiscent of movie culture. As the woman sung about wanting to “live inside that sheen” of the movie screen, it’s easy to see why. It’s glamorous and makes someone immortal. Even if it can be argued that Mia wants to be the next Ingrid Bergman, she still is following in a familiar mold. The same could be said for Sebastian, whose interest in jazz causes his own career to be derailed by reverential treatment of tradition.
There’s even an added twist for hardcore cinephiles. While the bright colors and big dance numbers may recall production numbers by directors like Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen, La La Land’s opening number feels like a bigger version of a similar opening number involving cars and dancing.
French director Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort featured a quieter, jazzier opening number in which actors danced around cars as a barge carried them to the island of Rochefort. The story is a subversive tale that involves comical songs, bright set designs and costumes, as well as a central story involving murder. Along with a French cast lead by Catherine Deneuve, the film also featured such musical icons as George Chakiris (West Side Story) and Gene Kelly (An American in Paris). While the film is part of the French New Wave movement, there’s no denying that Demy’s technique owes heavily to the American musicals exported to France. In a sense, the “Another Day of Sun” number has a subliminal ode to an international generation inspired by the golden age of Hollywood. This won’t be the last time that Demy is seen within the film either, as his melancholic lyrical style in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg share more than a passing resemblance to La La Land’s dourer numbers.
In La La Land, the number ends with the familiar triumphant note of an orchestra. The film opened with the dream of Cinemascope before cutting to the familiar reality and drudgery of traffic. Even with that drudgery, the film cut to an elaborate dance number that suggests that nothing will keep the young and inspired down. Even then, the film after the title takes time to reflect the reality of Mia and Sebastian, which will be explored in detail in later chapters.
Yet the road to Hollywood is paved with one last irony. As the La La Land title card fades, the thematic title card takes over. The film will take place over the course of natural seasons. The first up is “Winter,” of which is given irony to the lack of snow or festive weather. Even the fact that the opening scene was shot in sweltering temperatures adds a humorous touch to how cinema manipulates imagery to its liking.
Even if La La Land can be praised for its strengths in originality, it’s hard not to admit that it has some strong ties to the past. While there are plenty that are abundantly obvious, there are few interwoven into the plot that would take a keen eye to properly identify, such as how Mia and Sebastian’s romance heavily alludes to director Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. For now, everyone is on their way to work in the city of dreams, and it’s time to join them with an exploration of the themes that make the film work so well. The themes will include: originality and influence, individual and group, artifice and reality, and the positive side of compromise. Even if this is the last time that most of these characters will be discussed, there’s still plenty of their story to tell on the road ahead.