This review may contain spoilers, so this is your chance to shield your eyes and click away before my words ruin the beautifully magical and sincere art that is La La Land.
For those of who you have yet to witness the captivating charm of this 14 Academy Award nominated film, here is a link to the trailer so that you may be dazzled into wandering to the cinema from its soulful musical score, enticing visuals and exquisite acting: La La Land
If you have yet to hear of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land starring Hollywood’s sweetheart Emma Stone and the internet’s forever boyfriend Ryan Gosling then I believe you have found one excellent rock to hide under.
Director Damien Chazelle’s 2 hour long feature length film transports us to the hectic world of Hollywood; booming with colour, sunshine and thousands of artistic hopefuls. After an immersive musical opening atop a congested highway we are instantly thrust into Hollywood’s contrasting nature of enchantment and bleak reality. The audience follow aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they struggle to achieve their dreams in the make-or-break scene of L.A. The pair soon begin their truly Hollywood romance but the conflicting elements of their extravagant ambitions quickly interfere with their plans.
La La Land delicately blends the conflict between reality and dreams but does so in a visually stunning and beautifully written way, containing every heartfelt value within the brutal truth. We witness struggling artists, Mia and Sebastian, dance with their fantasies and mingle with stinging realities. The film’s sensitivity weaving between elegant portrayals of bitterness and delight. Its artistry charms its way into the audience’s heart. Never have I found myself leaving a cinema both embracing idealism and pragmatism in equal measures.
A musical so beautifully raw in talent and vision, La La Land had me questioning whether this was a screen adaptation of an already-successful stage production. Combining the majesty of theatre with the careful control of the screen, it’s no surprise that La La Land has already landed itself in its industry’s history books. Matching the success of Hollywood giants like 1997’s Titantic and 1950’s All About Eve with its 14 Academy Award nominations, La La Land still has the potential to continue making history. Could Chazelle’s musical romantic-comedy go even further? With Titanic and Ben Hur‘s outstanding tied record of eleven Oscars for a single film still at large and already with seven Golden Globes and five BAFTAs under its belt, many are wondering if this 2016 beauty could be in contention for not only the best film of 2016 but of the history of cinema?
The Struggling Artist
The theme of artistry is difficult to be amiss in this film. Ranging from the clear struggling artist motif in both Mia’s tenacity in auditions and Sebastian’s loyalty to a ‘dying’ musical genre; to the subtle, such as the name of Sebastian’s local jazz club ‘The Lighthouse Cafe’ where small-town labourers literally battling a sea of hardships search for the light to ground them. La La Land embraces the harsh realities that creatives experience throughout their lifetimes. Musicians, actors, writers, dancers, singers, painters, designers; the list of artists striving to achieve their dreams in the creative industry’s home for the hopefuls: Hollywood.
Chazelle and his team bring to life the hardships of an overshadowed industry. The life of an artist is presented in beautiful light in this film as we are charmed at every encounter Mia and Sebastian have with the people around them in their struggling careers. La La Land showcases the struggles of an artist. Mia’s dream of becoming a film actress as she is rejected and humiliated at every casting call is more than just powerful writing. The scene where an casting director overlays her lunch order as Mia is emoting during her audition was a brought-to-life experience from Gosling’s own youthful career.
Whilst audiences may find themselves bawling at the injustice of Mia and Seb’s failed relationship, it speaks volumes of the sacrifices required to succeed in such a challenging career. Neither could have achieved their true dreams without the other, but at the expense of their future together. The dream sequence (in true Hollywood style) is a reminder that sacrifice and hardships are necessities of success. In reality, both Mia and Seb achieve their dreams but at the sacrifice of their love. In the dream sequence, the pair’s romance blossoms, Mia becomes a world-famous actress but to the detriment of Seb’s own dream of owning a jazz club. As Gosling’s character foreshadows in his dialogue, ‘This is the dream. It’s conflict and compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!’ This touches upon another theme, that of the Hollywood dream, and how perfect endings are only truly attainable in the movies. I shall go into more depth into this theme later.
If you need a greater example of personifying the struggles of artists, look no further than Emma Stone’s emotive rendition of ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’. As the ballad builds from the struggling ‘hearts that ache’ and ‘the mess they make’, Stone’s beautiful emotions grasp all the feelings audience have shared with her character, Mia, throughout the movie and releases them in a cathartic heartfelt audition. Mia’s repeated failed auditions, her work at the cafe, her one-woman show, her bankruptcy, her heartache are all fused together and released through her powerful voice. Emphasised by Stone’s own realistic hardships in her acting career, ‘Audition’ bursts with agony and resolute hope. Hardships that scream with anguish as Stone’s character, Mia, emotes the song with one united feeling of, ‘this is my chance’.
Mia speaks to, ‘the painters, the poets and plays’, her colleagues, her fellow dreamers and sufferers. She connects the feelings of all she has encountered; herself, Sebastian, her old roommates. She unites their feelings of strife and tenacity. This is a song of despair but also of hope.
After all of Mia’s hardships, the song echoes with the powerful ending of: ‘Smiling through it/ She said she’d do it again’. Mia’s tenacity shines through. She acknowledges her reckless’leap[ing] without looking’, the uncontrollable nature of her dreams as she ‘tumble[s]’ in the ‘freezing’ waters of the River Seine, a metaphor for the glamorous and cruel world of Hollywood. The Seine, a romantic Parisian centrepiece, represents the Hollywood dream with all its wonder and beauty on the surface in the centre of the bustling City of Love, but the cold, harsh realities of the water are not seen by ordinary passersby. Only those who leaped into the Seine can understand its struggles.
‘Audition’ reveals the truth and tenacity behind the gorgeous appearance of the Hollywood world. The ultimate motif of the struggling artist: despite the pain, the struggling, the despair, artists thrive through the tenacity and hardships to reach the glory everyone else can see. They regret nothing despite the world being against them. So whilst Mia and her like-minded artists may seem like ‘fools who dream’, the world needs its glamorous allure and dreamers to keep itself beautiful and successful and inspire more dreamers to cause ‘ripples’. As she ultimately declares at the height of her song: ‘That’s why they need us’.
The Love Story
No Hollywood movie would be complete without its Hollywood love story and in La La Land this manifests in Mia and Sebastian’s passionate roller coaster romance.
Love is the epitome of fantasy and despair as we get swept up in its initial charm only to fall and then rise from its ashes. It is a progressive relationship. We fall fast, we fall hard, we deny it, we lose it, we find it again. Such is the story of love and such is the love story of La La Land.
Mia and Sebastian’s rise-and-fall Hollywood romance is most clear in two scenes; their duet in ‘A Lovely Night’ and the dream sequence at the end of film.
Whilst one of the tropes of the movie is setting up the Hollywood expectation only to deny it to the audience (as explored in the following section) at other times, Mia and Sebastian fight the Hollywood romances expected of them whilst other times they fulfil them. Their duet (both song and tap) in ‘A Lovely Night’ sees the pair reject the romantic scene they’ve found themselves in, both enlisting hyperbole to disregard their feelings. Sebastian remarks: ‘And there’s not a spark in sight/ What a waste of a lovely night’ in the hopes to deny the feeling building between the two, whilst Mia rebuts with the same intentions: ‘But I’m frankly feeling nothing/ Or it could be less than nothing’.
Moments like these where both Mia and Seb reject their affection are littered throughout the narrative and continuously foreshadow their ultimate separation. However, there are moments that fulfil the Hollywood expectation. One instance of this is when Mia leaves her current boyfriend at a family gathering at the restaurant to meet Seb for their first date. Or despite all of Seb’s rejection that feelings are building between him and Mia, he still helped her find her car when his was directly outside the party venue and he subsequently goes out of his way to find her at her workplace. This is a Hollywood romance after all, and we have to feel invested in the romantic relationship between Stone and Gosling’s characters. Which both actors act with all the subtlety and splendour of greats to indulge us with their cute and ardent charm.
The audience are quickly enamoured by the veracious and sasssy Mia and the stubborn and passionate Seb, and yearn for the two to achieve their Hollywood forever-ending. This is ultimately why audiences are broken hearted by Chazelle’s epilogue where the pair do not end together. Audiences may be left with the tear-jerking realisation of Mia and Sebastian’s failed romance (not the typical rom-com ending), but La La Land‘s ending speaks of deeper feelings. Stone and Gosling’s characters’ relationship may have failed but it is far from unfulfilled. Their separation denies the typical Hollywood ending. It serves to speaks volumes of the reality of romance.
Love is about progress and development. Sometimes we fall in love with someone who helps us grow and blossom but we do not ultimately end-up with them as it is not the right path for us. It is a harsh reality but a realistic portrayal of love. This realism is seen in Mia and Seb’s romance. Without Seb, Mia would not have left the her job at the cafe, she would not have written her one-woman show, would not have had the opportunity to go to Paris and start her career and achieve her dream. Without Mia, Seb would not have shared his passion of jazz, he would not have joined The Messengers, he wouldn’t have been able to ultimately fund his dream of owning a jazz club, he would not have been able to freely play jazz as he always desired. Even if it ultimately cultivated in the pair’s failed romance, their relationship led to the fulfilment of their dreams.
This is Chazelle’s message. Love is passionate, you feel it with your whole body, and you can try to make it work, but ultimately you cannot force it but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t essential to your life. You did not waste your time by being together. Love is needed to achieve dreams and dreams are necessary to imbue love, but achieving both at the same time in your life is a perfection that is unrealistic but not unnecessary. As Gosling’s character foreshadows during ‘A Lovely Night’:
“Some other girl and guy,
May love this swirling sky,
But there’s only you and I,
And we’ve got no shot”
After watching the movie in its totality, these lyrics holds deeper meaning. Hindsight blesses us with the realisation that Mia and Seb’s romantic journey could have benefited another couple and given them their happy ending, but that whilst it gave Mia and Seb their dreams, it didn’t give them their own romantic happy ending. Tragically, their dreams gave them ‘no shot’ at achieving a romantic future together.
Ultimately, La La Land portrays a Hollywood love story told in true dramatic Hollywood fashion about realistic romance.
Ultimately, and most importantly, La La Land cleverly engages with its own origin story. Hollywood represents the big, the fanatical, the rich and beautiful. When people think of Hollywood, it envelopes them with feelings of glamour and fame. The unbelievable that could be attainable.
La La Land gives its audience their anticipated fantasy-world. Bold colours, musical spectacles, and a passionate love story. Yet, all is not as it seems as throughout the film, as the story consistently becomes dusted with failed expectations.
We are greeted with a beautiful tap sequence in ‘A Lovely Night’ whilst the lyrics are glazed with stings of disappoint and denial amongst a beautiful skyline. Sebastian’s beautiful piano piece during Christmas dinner at a restaurant is quickly met by estranged stares and immediate unemployment. Mia’s own one-woman show intensely builds in the background only to cultivate in near-empty stalls where she becomes in debt to the theatre.
La La Land is constantly building its audience’s Hollywood expectations only to deny them with harsh realities. The musical’s second number ‘Someone in the Crowd’ builds up the anticipation when – like in West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet – at the party Mia will not only meet ‘Someone in the crowd who will take you where you wanna go’ but also her love interest, Sebastian, revealing the beginnings of their budding relationship. The audience are lead to believe that like great Hollywood romances, the party is the magical setting where: ‘A little chance encounter’ will lead to Mia and Sebastian’s meeting and their continuing romance.
However, despite Mia’s stunning blue ensemble and a gorgeous large Hollywood party, Stone’s character leaves the party, bored and alone. Whilst this does indirectly lead to Mia’s stumbling upon Sebastian’s piano-playing, the musical magic that has enchanted both Mia and the audience builds your expectations only to deny them when Sebastian ignores Mia’s attempted compliment and leaves. The audience’s illusion at a romantic chance encounter is shattered. The bitter disappoint is even heavier when it is revealed throughout the film that this beautifully simple piece of music is entitled: ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’. But this serves as a reminder to the audience that Hollywood is not reality. This is supported by Mia and Seb’s dialogue directly before ‘A Lovely Night’:
Mia: It’s pretty strange that we keep running into each other.
Sebastian: Maybe it means something.
Mia: I doubt it.
Sebastian: Yeah, I didn’t think so.
This simple dialogue denies audience’s the typical Hollywood trope of fated love at first sight. Mia and Sebastian do not immediately fall in love. On the highway they don’t fall in love, when Mia hears his playing from the streets they do not fall in love, they only feel true affection for one another when they bump into one another at a ‘random’ Hollywood party that Mia attends and Sebastian is the entertainment.
This is the first of many enamouring expectations that La La Land features. It is also just one example of how powerful a theme and medium music is within this film. As most of the romantic build-ups in the film are imbued by music.
La La Land alludes to its own Hollywood history. There are frequent references to Hollywood classics and iconic movie moments, in both story direction and visuals. Repeated references are made to West Side Story (1961) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Specific scenes and musical numbers are almost entirely dedicated to these films, for example Sebastian’s lamppost allusion to musical number ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ during his duet with Mia in ‘A Lovely Night’. Another example is Sebastian’s realisation of his love for Mia in ‘A City of Stars’ being reminiscent of Tony’s same realisation as he sings ‘Maria’ in West Side Story.
Vimeo user Sara Preciado has made a very good compilation of La La Land comparisons to Hollywood greats (mostly musicals). Here’s a link to her hard work which I think is well worth the watch: La La Land – Movie References.
Such consciousness demonstrates Chazelle and his team’s careful consideration and acute awareness of their own film’s Hollywood origins and is an accolade to their own talent and artistry. Each of Chazelle’s build-ups and denials of the dream Hollywood expectation are essentially the core message of his film. That Hollywood is Hollywood and not reality. Reality is compromise and not perfection, as Gosling’s character foreshadows ‘This is the dream. It’s conflict and compromise’.
La La Land is imbued with talent, art and love. These themes work hand-in-hand and have done throughout film history, but they are also the heart of reality as people strive for success, romance and happiness. Hollywood represents our dreams, and shows the attainable but only through sacrifice. Chazelle and his team demonstrate to the audience that dreams are not impossible but the reality of conflict and compromise is necessary as we try to achieve them.
Awards and Nominations
Here is a concise list of the awards La La Land has been nominated for already (as of Friday 24th February 2017). Those in bold are awards the film has won.
74th Golden Globe Awards – Hosted January 8th 2017
- Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (La La Land)
- Best Director (Damien Chazelle)
- Best Actor – Musical or Comedy (Ryan Gosling)
- Best Actress – Musical or Comedy (Emma Stone)
- Best Screenplay (La La Land)
- Best Original Score (La La Land)
- Best Original Song (‘City of Stars’)
At seven wins to seven nominations, La La Land won in every category it was nominated in. This made the musical the most successful film in Golden Globe history.
70th British Academy Film Awards – Hosted 12th February 2017
- Best Film (Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt – La La Land)
- Bets Director (Damien Chazelle)
- Best Actor in Leading Role (Ryan Gosling)
- Best Actress in Leading Role (Emma Stone)
- Best Original Screenplay (Damien Chazelle – La La Land)
- Best Cinematography (Linus Sandgren – La La Land)
- Best Original Music (Justin Hurwitz – La La Land)
- Best Sound (Mildred Iatrou Morgan, Ai-Ling Lee, Steve A. Morrow, and Andy Nelson – La La Land)
- Best Production Design (David and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco – La La Land)
- Best Costume Design (Mary Zophres – La La Land)
- Best Editing (Tom Cross – La La Land)
With eleven nominations and five wins, La La Land became the most decorated film of the 70th British Academy Film and Television Awards followed by Lion and Manchester by the Sea which each won two awards.
89th Academy Awards – Hosted 26th February 2017
- Best Picture (Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt – La La Land)
- Best Director ( Damien Chazelle)
- Best Actor (Ryan Gosling)
- Best Actress (Emma Stone)
- Best Original Screenplay (Damien Chazelle – La La Land)
- Best Cinematography (Linus Sandgren – La La Land)
- Best Film Editing (Tom Cross – La La Land)
- Best Costume Design (Mary Zophres – La La Land)
- Best Original Score (Justin Hurwitz – La La Land)
- Best Original Song (‘City of Stars’, Music by Justin Hurwitz, Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul- La La Land)
- Best Original Song (‘Audition (Fools Who Dream)’, Music by Justin Hurwitz, Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul- La La Land)
- Best Production Design (David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco – La La Land)
- Best Sound Editing (Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan – La La Land)
- Best Sound Mixing (Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee, and Steve A. Morrow – La La Land)
Having already made cinematic history with a tied-record of 14 Academy Award nominations (alongside Titanic (1997) and All About Eve (1950)), the question is will La La Land storm the awards ceremony with an equal level of 11 wins?