A dazzling homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood…
Before making La La Land, the film which has racked up an impressive fourteen nominations at this year’s Academy Awards, Damien Chazelle made Whiplash (2014) – a film which portrayed the true grit of musical struggle, and a young musician’s hunger to achieve. Similarly, these themes are also present throughout La La Land, which beautifully references the Golden Age of Hollywood, yet also incorporates modern ideals, making the film a dazzling step back in time and also a look at our own culture and society.
The film focuses on Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress stuck working as a barista on a production lot, who meets Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz musician who wants to revive the genre by opening his own jazz bar. Essentially, the film is a love story – we see Mia and Sebastian meet and fall in love, but the film also has underlying themes of musical struggle within Los Angeles. It would be easy for the film to retain a standard romantic narrative, but Chazelle has injected new themes of achieving ambitions alongside the relationship, where Mia and Sebastian push and help each other to achieve their own goals. This adds an extra layer to what could have been a cliché romantic plot, and makes the film even more enjoyable as we see the protagonists grow.
Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone)
But for me, the defining aspect of La La Land is the utterly addictive musical score. The opening number (‘Another Day of Sun’) is so successful in starting the film with an explosion of beat and colour, and really connecting the audience to the conventions of the musical narrative that we all recognise; choreographed dancing, bright colours, energy. However, within the first half an hour, the two protagonists engage in a duet when leaving a party, which acts as a direct homage to musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Many small references to Hollywood films are scattered throughout La La Land, such as Mia and Sebastian going to see Rebel Without a Cause, and Mia working across from the film set used in Casablanca. However, their duet, entitled ‘A Lovely Night’, is perfect in referencing many classic Hollywood musicals, and creating a charming scene reminiscent of traditional romance. Most notably, a key element of this scene is the fact that Chazelle shot the four minute sequence without cutting, emphasising the fluidity of the music and the skill of both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Moreover, the actions of the characters are perfect in encapsulating the spirit of the classic Hollywood musical. For example, when Sebastian swings around the lamppost, he mirrors Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Whereas, when the pair are sat side by side, mirroring each other’s hand/feet choreography, this seems to be a direct reference to the Shall We Dance (1937), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Even the lyrics of each song are similar – in La La Land’s ‘A Lovely Night’, Sebastian states how ‘This could never be…You’re not the type for me’, whereas in Shall We Dance’s ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’, Peter notes how ‘It looks as if we two will never be one’, making both the couples’ relationship an unknown element of anticipation for the audience (a typical narrative convention used in traditional romance films of the Golden Age). For me, the parallels between La La Land and musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood make for dazzling viewing, and revive a genre that unfortunately isn’t seen as much in mainstream cinema today.
Mia and Sebastian performing ‘A Lovely Night’
As mentioned before, the film has been nominated for an astonishing fourteen Academy Awards, holding the top spot for most nominations by a single film, with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997). With the buzz surrounding the film, it wouldn’t be surprising if La La Land picked up the main awards of the night (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, etc.), yet the Best Actor and Best Actress awards could go in different directions. Whilst Emma Stone gives a charming performance as Mia, and perfectly conveys the emotions of a struggling actress trying to make it big (her stunning performance of ‘Audition’ within the film proves this well), it seems she could be beaten by an even more emotive performance in the category – Natalie Portman’s performance in Jackie looks to be a strong contender for the award, receiving widespread praise from critics. Also, when considering Ryan Gosling for the Best Actor award, it is hard to compare his performance to other emotionally strong ones, such as Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea and Denzel Washington in Fences. Although, it is clear that Gosling worked hard for the role, learning jazz piano to an advanced level before shooting, and this determination really shines throughout the film, building Sebastian as a protagonist within the narrative.
Ryan Gosling showcasing his impressive jazz piano skills, learned for the part
Whichever ways the Academy Awards turn, La La Land has stood out to me as a defining film of the newly begun year. Not only is it a tale of love, ambition and compromise, but it is a tale of music – music drives the plot, but it also creates the whole aura of the film, taking us on journeys with the characters and placing us in the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema; a time that we can’t go back to, but can relive through films such as this.