La La Land: Love Letter to Broken Dreams

Damien Chazelle's La La Land: observes the geography of a musical in the present tense; marries lyrical cinematography and song; modulates an era reminiscent of Astaire & Rogers into the key of Gosling & Stone; makes my heart full.


Why Watch?

  • Original & modern - observes classic Hollywood and MGM musical filmmaking in the present tense
  • Film score - defines the story through a continuous, timeless melody; masterfully milks moments of happiness and melancholy; makes oneself melt into the characters
  • Artistic direction - organic camera movement; usage of color via cinematography, lighting, costume, and set design
  • Pacing - editing, transitions, and rhythm of scene sequences mirror musicality and visual lyricism shown on screen through musical numbers 
  • Gosling & Stone - their pre-existing chemistry makes it easy to want us to want them to come together; their relational dynamic gives the love story gravitas
  • Story - although simple in its make-up, the storyline is relatable, making one ponder which path of life is the 'right' one to travel by in light of one's personal passions

La La Land centers around Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), who are drawn together by their common desire to pursue their passions. As their careers become paramount with success, they are faced with crossroad decisions that cause their companionship to fray, and the dreams they worked to harvest in each other threaten to tear them apart.

More than anything, La La Land is about how song is a universal device that heightens emotion, elevates feelings and premonitions, and lifts the wings of a story. Having appeared in previous films together, Stone and Gosling's on-screen chemistry is a given. This theatrical luxury makes it easy for the viewer to believe them, even in a musical dimension. In this case, musical substance triumphs over vocal technique; Stone and Gosling each house a naturalistic voice, much like that of Gene Kelly, and embody the notion that a major function of musicals is to intensify colors that are naturally innate to human expression. The naturalism and simplicity in their characters makes them relatable in both current and timeless contexts. 

Picture Birdman meets Singin' in the Rain. Per Damien and Linus Sandgren, the film's cinematography and camerawork organically capture moments through shots that are vibrant with color and exude MGM era techniques, visually exercising the length and fluidity of single takes. For instance, take the opening musical number: the pattern of movement involves the camera soaring upward, revealing a glimpse of the magnitude of the highway, swooping below to capture more intimate moments, weaving in between cars, and then rising towards the sky again. There is an ebb and flow to the motion of the camera; it lives and breathes like an organism. 

Thus, the beginning and the ending of the film house a daydream aesthetic: the opening number is bright with "Another Day of Sun," and the ending sequence is driven by bittersweet retrospection upon Sebastian and Mia's relationship. The meat of the film experiences shifts in tone; Damien moves from MGM vibes to a celebration of French musicals directed by Jacques Demy in the 1960s: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Essentially, through the integration of varying stylistic influences, the atypical musical structure of La La Land allows its story to crescendo with sweet sadness; it revolves around the possibility of two people drifting apart as they come together, all while embedding contemporary contexts with timeless themes of forbidden romance, hope, and broken dreams. 

Alongside musical sections, every other scene is rich with detail - a result of conscious decision making. The nuances of color in costume and lighting, the seamless choreographic movement, the rhythmic pacing - in every scene sequence, there is an embedded musicality behind the camera that mirrors the visual lyricism on screen. This lyrical dynamic can especially be pinpointed in the final sequence of the film, which is similar to the structure of the ballet finale in An American in Paris (1951); the last fifteen minutes of the film rejoice with colorful sets, costume, dancing, and artistic editing and cinematography to depict a world that Damien refers to as a sort of alternate universe of Sebastian and Mia's relationship. In the conclusion of the film, audiences are able to see through a bittersweet lens how their relationship would have evolved void of downfalls. 

In a behind-the-scenes segment, Damien mentions that he, along with musical composer, Justin Hurtwitz, and the rest of the team, developed ideas early on for this film by turning a blind eye to all possible obstacles; this means they held no consideration for factors like financial burdens, time restrictions, casting difficulties, or the potential effects of bleak modernity. Inspired by classic Hollywood and the dynamic of old-fashioned musical-making, creating the early stages of La La Land in a vacuum ensured they were able to conceive the ideal version of the film and flesh out its characteristics with exciting, reckless abandon. Throughout the film, Damien and Justin's inspiration of classic Hollywood can be seen through La La Land's cinematographic tributes to musicals such as An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and West Side Story (1961). 

Moreover, the original musical score itself had its own cinematic character. Whereas nowadays mainstream films tend to be ridden with beds of sound, the definitive, overarching melody that Justin composed, Mia & Sebastian's Theme, acts as a musical engine that continually drives audiences to slip into emotional vulnerability; it gives the story moments of reprieve, causing Mia and Sebastian to repeatedly linger on their could-have-been's. 

Aside from the development of instrumental melodies, the fact that lyricists, Benj Pasek And Justin Paul, were tasked with writing words to pre-existing musical conditions is a tremendous feat within itself. According to the lyricists themselves, being confined to pre-defined musical spaces was considerably like "playing the hardest crossword" or "filling in the hardest Sudoku." The ability to pair words with melodies that tell a story, illuminate a character, and follow a certain narrative, all within set musical parameters, underscores the importance of both music and lyrics in elevating the plot. Thus, a dynamic of talking until one sings and walking until one dances was clearly present; because the melodies were beautiful yet linguistically simple in nature, moments where characters broke out into song or dance felt like an extension of a feeling or an emotional gesture.

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As a lover of classic movies, musicals, and artists, La La Land encompasses all the characteristics that I had hitherto presumed would only come to cinematic fruition in my dreams. Damien's ambitious vision to take inspiration from bygone musical eras and create an original musical in a modern space in time, without building a museum piece, demonstrates the timeless power of storytelling intertwined with music.

Thus, La La Land is about the past informing the present. It is about the interdependence of motion, emotion, and musicality. It is about film creators breathing every scene and being able to communicate through frames, colors, dance, and song. It is about finding ways to locate humanity and universal dissonance in different artistic mediums. It is about finding one's own lingering anthem or melody that inspires one to aspire to greatness.

It is rare to see fantasy and reality intersect, much less coincide, but Damien himself has defied rarity, giving his dream musical homage to the ones who dream - a hopeful melody that can be heard if one stops and listens closely enough.