The Heavy Happiness Of ‘La La Land’

“People love what other people are passionate about.”

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*spoilers*

Where to start with this film. It hasn’t stopped playing on my mind since I got up from my seat and reluctantly walked out of the screening. I’d wanted to soak the moment in for as long as possible. But it, the songs and the dances and the romance, had ended, and all I wanted to do was experience them all over again.

La La Land is the kind of film you watch with your head slightly tilted to the right, crying single-tear cries, wishing life could be a modicum as beautiful as this.

I was doing all three of these things within the very first scene. Although I’ll admit that over the past year I have, for some reason, become a more outwardly emotional person, I stand by the fact that I’m not somebody who cries very often at movies. But there was something about this film- something elusive but powerful- that struck a chord with me almost as soon as the first few notes of the opening song began playing.

It was just so… happy.

The opening scene, ironically set in an LA traffic jam, is an unapologetic outburst of joyousness and spectacle and colour; filmed in one single take, it wraps us around a beautiful song-and-dance world we immediately want to teleport into. The camera swerves through the synchronized movements with a mind of its own, from dancer to dancer, finally zooming back out for the title screen to superimpose, and the colourful commotion ends abruptly as though it never even began. By then, I’d already fallen dizzy in love. There’s something about the classic combination of dancing, singing and acting that evokes such an intense feeling of happiness in people, or in me anyway.

The film follows the story of Mia (Emma Stone), a barista and aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented pianist in an uninspiring job who wants to one day own an old-school jazz bar. Despite their persistent hard work, sacrifices and passion for their art, life presents knockback after knockback. The chapters of their relationship (or initial lack of) are sectioned into seasons, starting and ending in Winter.

Mia and Sebastian keep bumping into each other as though the universe wants their paths not merely to cross but to coalesce. The hyper-romantic relationship they finally sink into provides them with mutual support; someone in the same struggling position to motivate and encourage them to keep going. It’s almost as though they both become just as passionate about helping the other to achieve their dreams as they are about achieving their own. But there’s a miscommunication. Sebastian loses his way a bit, temporarily ‘selling-out’; Mia writes and performs a one-woman play that barely anyone attends. Everything comes to a head in a heated, impulsive, quickly-escalating argument.

The pursuit of their dreams begins to affect the progress of their relationship, and it’s heart-breaking.

Side-note: For the record, I adored the character of Mia (not just because we have the same name, but that is a perk). She is a complete bad-ass who doesn’t allow her dream to be defeated, even when she feels like she has nothing left to give. I found her so inspiring and unintimidating.

I won’t go through every scene (not because I don’t want to but because I need to leave something to the imagination) but a few really stood out to me. One of these is the planetarium scene, whereby Mia and Sebastian ostensibly defy gravity, dancing in circles around the starry space above them. It’s just bloody breath-taking. Another moment which may have made my heart burst was during a musical number; the camera rotates, bobbing on the surface of the water to show the beautiful Angelenos dancing around a swimming pool. The rotation gets faster and faster until the image becomes a kinetic, colourful blur, then a transition in and of itself. I couldn’t help thinking from a film-student point of view that this was such a creative, innovative shot, and it won’t seem to escape my mind.

The cinematography and editing are exquisite, every scene is visually spectacular. Lighting and colour are used so expressively, with glowing light that often paints the characters’ faces with a colourful, luminescent aura. Also, as someone who loves long takes, it was great to see them used throughout, and so brilliantly. The camera often tracks and follows the characters and the action, allowing us to wholly appreciate the beauty of the scene and the content within it without distraction. Being the film-nerd I am, I too loved the double entendre of Fall, reflecting the seasonal time of year but also the decline of Mia and Seb’s relationship. La La Land pays attention to the little details, and it makes all the difference.

So few films nowadays manage to strike the right balance between film as an illusion and film as a mode for reflecting realism; La La Land manages to deliver both all-encompassing escapism and relatability. Nonetheless, the ending has already been criticized (or should I say, ‘ridiculously misunderstood?’) by some viewers.

In the final scene, 5 years later, we see that Mia has achieved her dream of being an actress, and now has a husband and a child. She visits a bar with her husband, only to discover that it is the jazz bar that Seb always dreamed of owning, and he begins to play their song on the piano.

Then commences a beautiful alternate-ending sequence, a whimsical fast-forward fiction of what could have been. It is a scene which is so wonderfully crafted that you must see it to appreciate it, so I won’t attempt to explain it any further. Suffice it to say that when the camera zooms out, and we see that it is still Sebastian there on the piano, staring at his lost love in the audience, reality comes crashing in that life simply isn’t like that. They can’t have both. As heart-breaking and bittersweet as it is, for each of them to achieve their dreams, dreams they’d been working so diligently to make come true, they couldn’t stay together.

The smirk they exchange at the end is one of acknowledgement, familiarity and of pride in the other’s achievement; of forlornness but not of remorse. The fact that their lives took different turns doesn’t tarnish how important, special and pivotal their relationship was (an idea rarely explored in romance genres). It was just never their destiny for it to last forever, only to bring each other to where they needed to be. The look between them suggests they both know this. They’re finally fulfilled.

It’s clear that La La Land is somewhat of an updated tribute to old-school musicals. It harks back to the Old Hollywood era of bright, romantic filmmaking, reminiscent of classics such as Singin’ In The Rain and Some Like It Hot. It even finishes with ‘The End’ in that lovely, swirly font which instantly reminds you of pre-1960s cinema.

La La Land has revitalized the musical genre, something that you only really associate nowadays with Disney. Nonetheless, please don’t expect perfect Broadway-style belting-each-note-at-the-top-of-your-lungs voices or meticulously intricate tap dance routines. At the end of the day, Ryan Gosling is no Gene Kelly and Emma Stone is no Judy Garland, but in a way, that is part of the charm of the movie. The dancing and singing may not be as refined as a classic 1950s musical, but you can tell that the film itself is aware of this; it has a natural ease that if anything, just makes the characters seem more real and approachable. In the state that modern-day Hollywood is in, over-saturated with remakes and sequels and superhero narratives, cinema needed the colourfulness and originality of a movie like La La Land now more than ever.

At such a young age (he is only 31), I find Damien Chazelle’s body of directing work so impressive and inspiring, especially as someone who aspires to be a filmmaker themselves. The theme of music, especially in the form of jazz, is one that overarches many of Chazelle’s movies (i.e. Whiplash & Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench); his craft for combining these two art forms is formidable. The soundtrack in La La Land, composed by Justin Hurwitz, is truly stunning. Each song and piano score accompanies the mood and cinematography perfectly, never running for too long and always capturing the vital essence of hope and haziness. Chazelle is already cultivating his own flair/style as a director; I can imagine that he will go on to become of the great film auteurs of our generation.

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La La Land is about passion, love, dreams, determination, nostalgia and fate. The narrative is surprisingly tinged with sadness, but that’s one of the things I love about it. It is only ever cliché in all the right ways, and for a musical, somehow attains such complexity and nuance.

I would strongly urge anyone who suffers with depression to watch this movie. La La Land alleviated something within me, I viscerally reacted to it, my entire body tingled every time City Of Stars was played or sung, kind of like the way you feel when you see someone you love approaching you from a distance. For those two hours, my usual shell of emptiness was filled to the brim. I forgot anyone else was watching. I felt a happiness that was heavy only because I knew that the feeling would end once the credits started rolling.

Sorry this review was so long; I haven’t felt this affected by a film for years. I’m not sure I’ve even ever been this affected by a film at all. I’m absolutely head-over-heels in love with La La Land, and the feeling of being in love with a work of art is something that should never be underestimated.

Thank you, La La Land. You really are a modern-day classic.

“Smiling through it, she said she’d do it again.”