The Romance of 'La La Land'
“It’s brand new every night. And it’s dying,” Ryan Gosling's character Sebastian laments about jazz, in this scene above.
He might as well be talking about cinema. In the post-modern world of weary lovers in urban landscapes, or cynical, caped crusaders in dystopian lands, bright young voices (and their lives and loves) seem to be losing year after year.
However, 31 year old Damien Chazelle in his third film, creates a world so colourful, it’s dazzling. Or magical. Both words are in vogue for this festival-favourite musical, which is set in California’s dreary Hollywood. La La Land is a familiar tale about artists and dreams. But it is an unabashedly romantic film— the sort they don’t make anymore, or the kind that’s not watched anymore.
From the opening sequence itself— a musical number, featuring hundreds of dancers (and cars), shot in a jam packed freeway— Chazelle portrays what you’d assume to be familiar images in a way that’s anything but familiar. He isn't content with a good musical, he wants to reinvent the genre.
La La Land is a love letter to cinema, and to an old-world-charm. It is also a love letter to Los Angeles of the 1920’s, and to the Jazz of the 1960’s, as well as to a nuanced old-world courtship, both of personal passion and romantic love. And it's all written fittingly with CinemaScope.
There is an unhurried pace to the narrative, and Chazelle holds on to long, unbroken takes as the camera glides around characters and streets in graceful, fluid movements. The number, 'Someone In The Crowd', is to marvel at with its choreography of and around the characters.
Chazelle ensures that the very air of the film breathes nostalgia, with the colours altered, ever so slightly into a distinct pastel. It's like he is normalising the old-world vibe into the roads of a present-day LA dotted with many an unspecial Toyota Prius. He makes ample use of wide shots, and the vivid, grainy images shot on film bring the colours alive—a rarity in poorly-coloured studio films. [Refer this video essay on colours in Marvel films, if interested https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpWYtXtmEFQ]
Emma Stone (Mia) and Gosling’s number 'What a Waste of a Lovely Night', is almost kinetic in its rendition—in the middle of a quiet street overlooking the vast expanse of the city. They tap dance, they glide, they sing, they adore each other. But before you know it, the spell of this scene is broken, with the distinct sound of the 21st century— Mia’s iPhone ringtone.
Boy-meets-girl stories are hard to film. Especially given that the internal conflicts of the characters here have been seen before, heard before, read before: What’s the nature of love? What’s the price of following your dreams? Is it worth it, with the ever-lingering question of whether they will come through? Chazelle’s sleight of hand here, though, is the self-awarness of the material he’s dealing with. He brings in CinemaScope here— almost religiously, both Stone and Gosling are shot in mid and long shots. You don’t just see them, you see the expanse too. They’re but tiny creatures in the cruel, yet magnetic Hollywood, one where legends about Casablanca (1942) are still spoken of. The metaphysical is given the shape of physical.
It’s idealized. It’s romantic.
It doesn’t exist, yet it does.
Like a ‘city of stars’.
It is a 'la la land'.
The film's mission statement is hidden in one of its dialogues: “Why do you say romantic like it’s a bad word?" And Chazelle never lets this mission out of his sight.
Even if, as Mia and Sebastian go through life, and melancholy starts to set in, the music fades out. Even if the song-and-dance reduces appears less frequently. Cooler colours give way to warmer ones.
But in just one moment, as Sebastian, the proud pianist plays his sombre tune once more, for his beloved, that silence of their special, personal, and magical is broken. The noise of a jazz cafe comes to a standstill, only to prance into a future of what-could-have-been.
The alluring creation of the mind.
The dream the seeming absurdity of which is only matched by its elegance.
Very much like La La Land itself.
The film released in India, in limited screens, on 9 December. Regular release on 16 December.
Text by Amit Upadhyaya