A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
“We lost, by the way.”
It was the most surreal moment in the history of the Academy Awards. The entire Hollywood world collected under one roof had just declared La La Land the Best Picture of 2016, only for the award to be yanked away and handed to Moonlight.
Is that awards night a tragic ending for La La Land, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory? Or, if you take it from the proper perspective, is the evening instead a triumph for the cast and crew, including Damien Chazelle, who won Best Director? Perhaps the Best Picture mishap is best understood as a bittersweet blend of the both, tragedy and triumph.
The more times I’ve watched La La Land, I’ve found poetry in its Academy Awards fate. It echoes the movie’s ending: A rise to glory, but tinged with the loss of perhaps the greatest prize of all. On February 26, 2017, ’twas a Best Picture statuette slipped away; in La La Land, ’twas true love.
Damien Chazelle, fresh off his buzzy, Oscar-winning sensation Whiplash, dove into his true passion project, the musical he’d been dreaming of making since he wrapped on Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench in 2009. Like all of Chazelle’s written and directed films to date, La La Land is about the cost of achieving artistic actualization, the sacrifices we make to achieve great things. A tug of war between personal and professional success.
But, even more than it’s a personal manifesto, La La Land is a movie about how lovely movies are. It is intoxicated with the romantic allure of cinema, specifically musical cinema, “a Technicolor world made out of music and machine.” Colors and images, passions and heartbreaks, music and motion, dreams and stars. The most obvious inspiration is Jacques Demy, but to pigeonhole La La Land as a pastiche of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg would be to miss a feast of cinematic allusion. There are explicit cues from F.W. Murnau, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Lean; Grease, West Side Story, and Moulin Rouge. (Not to mention a major hat-tip to That Thing You Do!, my favorite film of all time; I learned from Chazelle’s commentary track that it’s one of his favorite movies and one of Emma Stone’s favorites, too.) The more movies I see, the more times I return to La La Land, the more impressive and infectious I find Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz’s voracious appetite for Hollywood. Yay movies!
La La Land tells the story of a pivotal year in the lives of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia is an aspiring actress running out of steam for failed auditions and dashed hope. Sebastian is a piano player who dreams of opening a vintage jazz club but is forced into performing humiliating Muzak at parties to pay the bills. After brusquely crossing paths a few times, Mia and Sebastian discover in each other a shred of hope for a brighter, happier future. Personal love amidst the professional heartbreak. By the end of the film’s final act, a five year flash forward capped with an all-timer epilogue that revisits the movie’s pivotal moments with idealized wishes and stylized visuals, the script has flipped. Professional glory achieved, but romance slipped through fingertips and lost to time. A tragic ending, a triumph, a bittersweet blend of both.
This is also a love-or-is-it-hate letter to Los Angeles: A cuckoo world where sunsets look like matte paintings and Christmas is a balmy 72 degrees. The film’s opener, “Another Day of Sun” succinctly captures the double-sided nature of the city’s famous comfy weather: The sun is a sign of optimism but also a symbol of the depressing, repetitive grind (literally sung during a traffic jam). Every day, the same as the last — that’s how depressives often describe their condition. The film has a gag that lasts the entire runtime about how the actual season doesn’t really matter and most people don’t seem to notice despite it being plastered on the screen like a title card.
And buried under all of that is one more theme, perhaps the most introspective by Chazelle. Sebastian finds himself at a crossroads in the film: Does he embrace popular and forward-thinking jazz embodied by John Legend’s Keith, or does he cater to the niche, classical die-hards with his conservative brand of bop? This tension between looking back at the greats versus blazing a trail forward has defined Chazelle’s creative output so far. But there’s some irony that the film that will likely be the most crowd-pleasing that he ever makes is so preoccupied with defining artistic authenticity.
La La Land offers a feast for its two leads: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. One of the biggest differences between La La Land and the classic musicals it homages is that neither Gosling nor Stone is a prodigy in vocals or dancing. Yet they more than make up for it with some of my favorite acting of the past decade: It’s hard not to get swept away in their romance or choked up while, e.g., Stone pays tribute to her aunt the dreamer. Stone and Gosling also acquit themselves as singers and dancers better than expected. They’re no Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers, but they hold up alright.
Anyways, Stone and Gosling are outstanding at the Star is Born material — great in isolation as they dream big, even better together as they lift each other up (and tear each other down). They have terrific chemistry and charisma, and serious sparks both romantic and tense when the moments call for it. Really outstanding performances by both.
Bonus points go to Gosling for actually learning to play the piano. When I first saw the movie and realized he was written as a piano player, I rolled my eyes — one of my movie pet peeves is actors playing supposed piano players who we only ever see play the piano with camera trickery like obfuscated hands and cuts to doubles. But Gosling is actually playing the music in the film — some of it, like the “City of Stars” reprise, actually live during filming rather than added in post-production.
The two distinct elements that Chazelle brings to the film’s visual profile are its colors and its long takes. The colors strongly evoke three-strip Technicolor, like a studio-era musical dating back to Wizard of Oz. (Demy in particular famously loved colors like this.) It’s a visual blowout — costumes and sets fully saturated in their hues. As the third of Chazelle’s writer-director projects, it’s also the third innovative and thematic use of color by Chazelle: Guy and Madeline’s black-and-white suggest a detached blurriness; Whiplash’s yellow-tinted tone suggests stage lights as its heroes obsess over performance; for La La Land, the colors capture a sense of rapture and big-hearted romanticism.
Chazelle’s second big visual tool is long takes. He opens the movie with the biggest one of all: the highway-sprawling, cast-of-hundreds “Another Day of Sun.” Not only is it a virtuosic piece of direction and choreography, but it lays out the movie’s blurry edges of musical diegesis: normal life is punctuated by song and dance, reality and musical in an arm-wrestling match.
None of the subsequent long takes are quite as impressive as the single-shot opener, but there are a lot of really terrific, enveloping single-shot scenes. One of Chazelle’s favorite techniques is a quick pan as a replacement for a cut. It’s a subtle thing — almost a cheat as it achieves approximately the same effect of a cut — but it also does so much to build a sense of space during the musical numbers.
Justin Hurwitz as the composer is just as much the architect of the film as Chazelle, though. This is one of the greatest soundtracks for any movie; at a minimum, it’s one of the great triumphs of film score composition since live-action musicals went out of style in 1960s. Hurwitz’s strength is in thematic and leitmotif work: Each of the movie’s major songs represents a new theme for the Hurwitz to toy with in the orchestral score as the film progresses. He also builds a lovely, transporting core theme: “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” as it’s labeled on the soundtrack, the swelling and cascading 7-note riff first heard when Mia first overhears Seb playing the piano. It’s a miniature knockout, gently evocative of “Clair De Lune” but repurposed with a dozen different heart-tugging textures throughout the film.
The soundtrack’s coup de grace is the finale which pulls together every soundtrack theme used throughout the film in an audiovisual fantasia. It’s an outright masterpiece of a ten-minute scene anchored by the clever musical composition returning and evolving: Quite honestly, it’s one of my favorite segments of any movie I’ve seen.
Hurwitz’s work on actual numbers, with lyrics penned by Pasek and Paul, is not quite as strong as his work on the instrumental themes: They’re not as pop-friendly as most movie soundtracks these days. That’s by design, of course — it’s a “classic” showtune score. But a few of the numbers run together — the sequencing of “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” within fifteen minutes of each other really makes the two songs seem same-ish in particular. “City of Stars” is lovely but slightly underwritten. “A Lovely Night” is outright forgettable aside from the gorgeous, long-take sunset choreography.
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is the manifesto that inverts “Another Day of Sun,” a heartfelt, irony-free tribute to dreaming for more. It’s sung live, not in studio, by Stone, and you can hear the emotion overcoming her voice. The minimal framing with a woozy, spinning camera is phenomenally evocative. It is, again, not the most memorable tune on its own, but as the climax to this particular movie, it’s heart-tugging and brilliant.
Any issues I have with the numbers melt away whenever I actually watch — not just because Hurwitz cleverly repurposes motifs from each song throughout the film to make them all seem richer when watched as a whole, but because the real draw is the mise en scene that Chazelle builds for each tune. On screen, as opposed to Spotify, each tune is absolutely perfect, and I love them all.
The biggest problems with the film are writing-related: The script features some choppy plotting in the second act. I’ve always chalked the mid-story lurches up to an ambitious story with a lot of moving parts that got maybe a little in over its head and was smoothed over in the editing room in the name of pacing. Chazelle’s director’s commentary confirms this — a few transition scenes were cut, a few shots and lines of dialogue moved from one scene to another. The result is that the movie’s pivotal thematic shift — Seb becoming a successful but unfulfilled jazz piano player as Mia pauses her acting career to work on her self-discovery one-woman show — feels a bit rushed and awkward.
It ends up not mattering too much. The broad ideas are there, and they work. It’s a big, melodramatic story, the general strokes clear and effective enough. And by the time you get to that finale, that momentary smile between Seb and Mia that closes the film, capturing a hundred different ideas and feelings — some triumphant and romantic, some tragic and weepy — La La Land has pulled all of its ambitions together into a true masterpiece. It’s one of the great films of the century to date. The three-minute Best Picture reigns eternal in my heart if not the record books.
- Review Project: Damien Chazelle Retrospective
Masterpiece: Tour De Good (8/8)
Note: This podcast episode is from the first time I watched the movie, more than a year before this review was written.