Honoured with being one of the only three movies in the history of Hollywood to have received 14 Oscar nominations, it was seemingly impossible to escape the buzz surrounding “La La Land” back when it released in 2016. So for everyone who is curious about what actually makes this movie great, welcome to my blog.
Warning – spoilers follow.
For the unaware, the plot of the movie is fairly simple & straightforward – Girl meets boy, they fall in love, move-in together, life gets in the way and they part their ways. Like I said, simple & straightforward! But that is just on the surface of it. This is not a love story. This is a story about passion and dreams and bravery and perseverance and belief and well, maybe a little bit of love as well.
But how many countless movies have come before this one that all revolve around the same concepts? I do not pretend to have seen them all but I do think La La Land in itself resonates with me in a completely unique manner. So what makes it so worth the hype? If you ask me, it is all in the details. The details and the consistency which follow through in every aspect of the movie. The details and consistency which made Damien Chazelle the youngest ever director to ever be awarded an Oscar.
La La Land. Sounds like a fantasy land, doesn’t it? Some of the genius of the movie lies in the name itself, however child-like and dreamy it may sound like. You see Los Angeles, which is where the movie majorly takes place and is shot in, is called LA for short. No surprise there. So then, I guess the title itself subtly gives away the entire theme behind the movie – that it consists equal parts of dream-like beauty and hope and equal parts of real life possibilities and tragedies.
This theme is brought forward in every aspect of the movie. Let us start with possibly the biggest. Neither Ryan Gosling, nor Emma Stone are particularly known for their singing or dancing skills. So why cast them, when Chazelle could have taken it easier with maybe a Hugh Jackman or an Emma Watson? And now would be a good time to point out that this movie was Chazelle’s dream project. The one he wanted to make ever since he was in college and started pursuing film-making. So why not play it safe? I would argue that casting was one of the most perfect parts of a pretty perfect movie in general. Since neither Gosling, nor Stone have pitch perfect notes, as an audience, you see a rather realistic portrayal of song and dance, set amid the backdrop of pretty fantasy-like set-ups. You can even hear Stone chuckling in some of her verses cause she realised she sang off-key and has a human reaction towards it. The film preserved such flaws. In fact, not just that, it encouraged them, by having the cast sing many of the songs live. The contrast of the imperfection of the singing and dancing with the elaborate, colourful backgdrops with the idea of portraying reality within the dream world or a dream-like fluidity in the real world.
Since the movie is after all a musical, songs took centre stage in the movie. More so in the first act than in the second. Now I am not musician nor do I have training in any instrument or knowledge about it, but through interviews, I learnt that Justin Hurwitz, the composer for all the tracks in the movie, wrote each song in such a way that they had both high and low key notes in the songs. In his own words, Hurwitz explains that high key notes are supposed to make the listener feel happy and positive and hopeful whereas low key notes make us feel remorseful and well, low. So he wanted every song to feel like a whole journey in itself, with their own high and low points. And that completely blows my mind away because isn’t that a perfect mirroring of human emotions? Even when we’re ecstatic, we’re nostalgic and even when we’re sad, we’re hopeful.
Unsurprisingly, this theme carries on to visual aspects of the movie as well. In the opening scene, the dance picture on the cars shows a completely dream-like world. But as soon as the song is over, the shot pulls a 180 and shows people stuck in traffic jams on the highway to LA, a painful reality for all those living there. This carries on to other aspects of the movie as well, like when Mia goes to the Hollywood party and finds herself alone in the powder room, reflecting on a completely aloof state of mind in contrast to the chirpiness in the party.
The very first lyrics of the very first song in the movie essentially convey the whole plot of the movie. What an ingenious move. Give the audience the chance to understand the entire style and plot of the movie within the first 3.5 minutes and give them the option to either stick with it or get up and leave.
I think about the day I left him at a Grey Hound Station West of Santa Fe We were seventeen But he was sweet and it was true Still I knew what I had to do
I challenge you to get up and leave now 😛
Even the sets and the locations convey the dichotomy of the theme. Let’s look at the whole scene from “A Lovely Night”. There is no way that was a real place, right? I mean it looks so magical and unreal. There was definitely some use CGI or some visual effects in it. While it is almost boastful to conclude this, we again underestimate the genius of Chazelle who wanted to manipulate our minds that way. Or maybe he wanted to just blow our minds away with the truth. Either ways, the entire scene, the dance sequence, the view, the background, all of it was 100% authentic. Apparently, at a specific time during the year, the skies in LA actually look like that. Only this time, he shows that sometimes reality can actually come across as a dream. Just as beautiful. Just as possible. Just as hopeful.
Another sizeable reason why this movie works is the realisation of the characters themselves. The movie revolves around Mia & Seb. It shows us how supportive they are of one another’s career and how they actively help the other person work towards their dreams. They are both equally consumed by their respective passions and bond over the very same thing. When I first saw the movie, I fell in love with it when Sebastian suggested to Mia during their very first date to quit her job as a barista and write her own play and cast herself in it. To be independent and stand out of the box. To have a voice. This especially amazes me because in a time where movies are dramatised too much by having unimaginable odds for the protagonist to overcome or when toxic relationships become cult-phenomena, La La Land is like a breath of fresh air in its simplicity and reality. It is about the very common problems most people face in their lives, but lived through by two people who have the resilience and passion to pursue their dreams unapologetically. Something I think a lot of us lack and therefore admire about in them. And even people as truly remarkable as them, both give up on their dreams for a little while. Again, a very healthy and positive depiction of needing someone to sometimes put you in the right direction when you feel down or broken.
The dinner scene, right before the breakup. It took me a couple watches to realise how harmoniously the whole scene was shot. We often take these things for granted, suffering from cinematic illiteracy but the green lighting on their face to symbolise the growing distance, the music playing on the vinyl that stop exactly at the climax of their fight, the delivery of the lines, the acting, is all done phenomenally and is a rather understated performance. How Mia does not pause for a heartbeat before saying that she likes the music that Sebastian is playing with the band, flashing him a genuine smile while admitting to it as a show of support to him, despite knowing how he has lost a part of himself in the process, while also being honest enough to confront him about whether he actually loves his new plan or if he is giving up his dreams for a more comfortable lifestyle.
And similarly when Sebastian drives to Nevada to get Mia to audition for her role, not letting her give up on her dreams in the process. It is so evident from their actions how they are each others’ well wishers and support system. How they know that they owe it to themselves and to one another to put their passion above everything else. Including their relationship. Even if they may not always like it. Sebastian drives Mia to her audition and waits for her to come out. He is confident about her career even when she is not. Same as when Mia makes him realise that his passion for Jazz will be almost contagious to other people once he opens his club. Their relationship is the catalyst for both of them to ultimately meet their
destined earned success. And when the time comes, they know better than to hold each other back from this success. Even if it comes at the cost of their relationship.
When Mia tells Sebastian that she will always love him, I am sure hearts were broken everywhere in the theatre. We all know this feeling. We all have felt it. Of having someone be responsible for the versions of ourselves that we are today. Of owing our growth to them. Of holding on to the past, to the memories of the love that you shared back when you thought you had forever. Mia is well aware that she might be losing the love of her life at this very moment. But she has the strength, the maturity, the emotional intelligence of loving it for what it was and for where it got her instead of holding on to an idea of where it could go. She is forever grateful for Sebastian and she will positively look back at everything they went through together. She will forever respect and revere him for making her become the version of herself she needed to be. But like I said, this is not a love story. This is a story about passion. And they both recognise that now the time has come for them to pursue their passion. Relentlessly. Unapologetically. Untiringly. And they have the strength to break away for the sake of it. They both know to put themselves first. They both know to cherish the past, but not to live in it. And if you ask me, there is nothing braver.
And all of these reasons obviously add up to translate into a movie for all of time to come. A movie for every festival, every emotion, every mood, every heartbreak. Ever green. But, what makes it leap from being a wonderful movie to being the perfect movie, is the last scene where we see an alternative ending where the characters get their happy ending together, only to realise that it was all wishful thinking. It drives home the idea that in life, you more often that not cannot end up getting everything you want. That in order to get where you want, you have to make sacrifices along the way. That there is a cost to dreaming. And that putting your dreams ahead of everything else may actually be the hardest, the strongest but also the best thing you can do for yourself. That it is not only okay, but necessary to put your dreams ahead of everything else and have the courage to pursue them inspite of the odds. That in order to get everything you ever wanted, it is okay to be selfish as long as it is not at the cost of someone else. And that it is okay to love someone forever, but also move on from them. To not live in the past, even though it may be comforting and easy.
The ending lets the actors shine completely as their emotions are almost tangible on the screen. Emma Stone’s smile under the fluorescent blue lights leaves you revelling with the cinematic experience you just had and it forces you to just sit back and contemplate because of its simplistic end to a very otherwise majestic looking feel. It leaves you to ponder on the theme of the movie, the delivery of the characters, the humanity of their sacrifices and the passion that wraps up the plot neatly, albeit with a bittersweet feeling. It leaves you amazed and heartbroken and surprised and assured and contemplative and insightful. It stays with you for a long time after the end credits turn up. And isn’t that what the purpose is? To leave just a little bit more human than you came?
La La Land has easily and quickly risen up to become one of my favourite movies of all time not just for its plot, but for the collective genius of everyone who worked on the film with such detail and such consistency that only adds to the whole experience of the movie. It is truly unlike anything I have ever seen before….