At the 2017 Academy Awards, La La Land was nominated for 14 awards and took home six including a few from the biggest categories – direction, cinematography, original score and production design. The year prior, in a sweeping win, the film also took home all 7 Golden Globe awards for which it was nominated and managed to collect a few additional awards, and many more accolades, abroad.
Now on Netflix, the film has the opportunity to reach an even wider audience – as well people who may have initially dismissed it – a film that is basically a love letter to Hollywood, let alone a musical.
At first glance, the film directed by Damien Chazelle seems like just another opportunity for white Hollywood to celebrate itself by paying homage to films of the past that glorified the, now defunct, American dream. Though John Legend has arguably one of the best monologues and lines in the film,“How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” It was a bit disappointing to see how few actors of colour were on the screen – especially for a film that praises jazz above all else.
In addition, the film revolves solely around two white, middle class artists trying to achieve their dreams without facing any real societal barriers – and spoiler alert – they both find eventual success. A cynic might just see this film as a reflection of old and present Hollywood; painfully delusional and self-congratulatory.
To be honest, I didn’t want to like it.
However, now that I have seen the film over 100 times, it’s safe to say that I love it. I cannot deny that it is a beautifully executed film about a love that is not meant to last and a lesson that dreams will come –but at a cost. Divided into four seasons, it uses two characters to tell a story of ambition, success, art, and of course, love.
Now that the film is readily available, you might give it a chance, so here are some things to keep in mind as you watch.
The film is set in the current day, with Emma Stone’s character, Mia, an aspiring actress working as a barista on a movie lot. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a down-and-out musician reliving the golden age of jazz as he drives around in a vintage car – with functioning tape deck. While the film takes place in Los Angeles, we are spared the usual images of beach bodies and rooftop bars with tattooed hotties as we have come to expect from recent films. Instead, viewers are given a bit of a different look at LA as the characters drive past an old movie hall and visit the Griffith Observatory. Pool parties are filmed at dated art-deco style California homes and home décor sticks to a 50s colour palette with bright primary colours on the walls. And although our heroine owns an iPhone with its distinctive ring, she puts pen to paper at the kitchen table to work on writing her own script.
Since the film is a musical, people might assume that the entire story line will be told in song and that the action of the film will be repeatedly interrupted with annoying, long dance sequences. Not so! With two strong melodies interwoven into the film, the songs seamlessly transition and appear organically in the film – due to skilled and well-choreographed dance numbers as well as a likeable soundtrack. By making one of the lead characters a piano player, music appears in the film almost effortlessly – a restaurant, a band playing a party, a couple singing by the piano, a concert. Though the film starts with two big songs, viewers are given a break to get to know the two lead characters without the plastic smiles and jazz hands associated with musicals of the past.
Magic of the Pictures
Taking viewers to the streets of Los Angeles (a city people used to refer to as “LA LA Land” in its glory days), the director has graced audiences with picturesque set designs, artistic transitions and a timelessness that will not age the film any time soon. Clothing choices are simple and classic as are vehicles and indoor décor. Group dance scenes at classic California pool parties, a pair in love floating into a star lit sky, or stroll through a painted Parisian landscape are all portrayed with a light enough hand that the modern viewer can be in the moment while simultaneously appreciative of the art and intention in each frame.
In my favourite sequence toward the end of the film, the story is re-told from a different angle, taking viewers on a journey back to key moments in the film – at one point using silhouettes and shadows to revisit a scene. This fast- forwarding through the entire story in order to provide an alternative storyline results in something that is somewhat magical and definitely bittersweet. Using music, creative lighting, colourful backdrops and quick sweeps of the camera, viewers join Ana and Sebastian as they envision how their lives may have been affected had they made one different, seemingly small decision.
In the end, La La Land, like many films, can be viewed through various lenses. The term “la la” can refer to Los Angeles (L.A.), a state of mind, or make reference to its musical nature – though it’s disconnection from reality may be its most attractive element.
As a love letter to the American Dream, it is innocent and pure even if it lacks depth and insight into the struggles of a modern actor or singer in an oversaturated business, especially if that singer or actor is a person of colour or someone facing serious personal or external challenges in the pursuit of success.
Upon multiple viewings though, while I do agree that this film is a clear ode to old Hollywood, I think it is also an ode to love and to youth in its simplest form. I think it has a modern but timeless quality that makes it charming and wonderfully romantic and bittersweet.
And I just can’t get enough.
By Izabela Wlodarczyk