La La Land: Romance and Ambition in the City of Angels

A piece of review offered of this film by David Sexton from the Evening Standard said,“They don’t make films like this anymore.” I never grew up with Old Hollywood musicals talked about in that piece, nor had time to check them out. Yet, I have been anticipating this film since its production was first announced. First of all, La La Land is directed by Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, which is my favorite film of 2014, and probably one of my favorite films of all time. Second, it’s a musical, an art form I’m really excited about since discovering that really huge hip-hop musical about an American founding father. Third, I’m really intrigued about the plot, since the premise resembles the play I wrote. La La Land is about a struggling actress-slash-barista (Emma Stone) and a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) in Los Angeles who falls in love with each other. My play’s first draft premise is about a secretary-slash-singer and a jazz pianist who falls in love with each other. (Only, my play turns from a romance into a crime drama).

Fresh off my trip to LA, I booked tickets to see the film, together with Rogue One, which I analyzed here. It was a gripping, charming two hours. It was engaging yet a rollercoaster of emotions at the same time. I dragged my friend to watch it – a friend who had no expectations about this film – and she cried and cursed the film, along with Rogue One. That probably shows how highly affecting the two films are, and she’s a Star Wars fan, so La La Land really does its job emotionally. I think that this film is a really special experience, and I highly recommend it.

Most critics say that this film is a love letter to Los Angeles. I agree that it’s a love letter to LA, but I think there could be more work done in capturing the beauty of LA. Most of this film is set in indoor, general settings, such as apartments, recording studios, clubs, and parties. LA is conveyed mostly in its transition shots, and the only “very LA” location that contributes to the plot is Griffith Observatory. Although the habits of the characters might be very Los Angeles, but more films have given me a greater sense of what LA is like as a city.

Yet, the performances in this film are stellar. Ryan Gosling gives off the charm and the debonair of old movie stars, and his soulful croon fills the theater as he sang about the uncertainty of love. Emma Stone shines in one of her best performances yet. She could capture the old-movie-star nuance and balance it with the frustration of a struggling actress, and the audience can really feel the emotions Stone is trying to convey in the film. Her emotions resonate with you, and she makes Mia her own – a mark of a good actress.

rs-248320-emma-stone-ryan-goseling-la-la-land-sing-dance-trailer1Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling tap dancing in La La Land.

Before the film, I’ve listened to the soundtrack (it’s available here) countless of times and I’ve basically memorized the whole lyrics of City of Stars. The music feels impressive when you listen to it from the first time, but when you’ve watched the movie, the songs will never be the same. The film left a great emotional impression on you, and listening to the soundtrack after that will evoke more feelings. I also like how composer Justin Hurwitz uses several music motifs throughout the film – every melody has its meaning and its significance, and Hurwitz played the melody at appropriate times during the movie as a tool to push the plot forward and also to move the audience closer to Mia and Sebastian’s journey. The soundtrack is purely jazz, as this film is partly about Jazz and Sebastian’s conservative appreciation towards the art form.

Prior to La La Land, Chazelle also explored the theme of both jazz and ambition in Whiplash. Yet, the tone of the two movies are completely different. Whiplash views jazz as a living art form and puts the audience as a spectator to the creation; La La Land views jazz as a dying art form and puts the audience as a spectator to the appreciation. Whiplash views ambition as competition; La La Land views ambition as being a better version of ourselves. Chazelle explores that through his directing. He retains the use of fast cuts and musical instrument close ups to convey jazz as an art form, yet he uses more wide angles and continuous shots to show the audience that this film encourages us to appreciate the art form.

What intrigues me is how the title, La La Land, really relates to the film. Besides La-la-land being the nickname of Los Angeles, it is also a metaphor for being in a dreamland. Mia and Sebastian both have dreams – Mia dreams to be a successful actress, and Sebastian dreams to own his own jazz club. Both of them really want to chase their dreams and we can see their tactics they use in reaching their dreams in this movie, while trying to stick with their ideals. That’s why this title is, really, a great summary of this film. Corresponding with the genre La La Land is paying homage to, this film has lots of musical sequences and imaginary scenes, including a really, really pivotal one. Although it has lots of la-la-land sequences, it does not fail to address complex topics.

La La Land is a great analysis of the human condition, especially how our personal ambitions would work for/against a romantic relationship. The dynamics explored in this film is not only between Mia and Sebastian, but also between Mia, Sebastian, their dreams, and their feelings for each other. It is not only a surface level view of romantic infatuation and relationships; it is an analysis – a deconstruction of a romantic relationship, and how it affects the livelihood of both people in the relationship. The relationship portrayed in La La Land isn’t solely for teenage audiences to respond with “aww, they’re such a cute couple!” (In fact, I’ve never thought of that during the entire movie). Chazelle welcomes us to take a peek inside these two characters, their lives, and what lies ahead of them, with song and dance as a cherry on top.


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