SPOILER WARNING: Prestridge²’s In-Focus series goes to La La Land
I fell in love with La La Land at 11.12am on January 8, 2017.
Sitting in seat A8 at the wonderful Curzon Victoria, Damien Chazelle’s musical masterpiece swept me away with its vibrant vision. One so finely tuned, entrancing and delightful that I kept coming back for more.
Now available on DVD, we can begin to appreciate the finer details of Chazelle’s work. If you are anything like me, you’ll fall even deeper in love with La La Land after an In-Focus look.
Just Waiting to be Found
Set to the backdrop of urban Los Angeles, La La Land tells the love story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
Seb is a jaded jazz pianist. As part of his throwback personality, he dresses in formal clothes and drives a classic brown 1982 Buick Riviera. Seb clings onto the past with boxes of jazz memorabilia which are stacked up in his grey and bare apartment.
In keeping with his sister’s assessment that he is a ‘hermit’, Seb spends his time sitting across the street from his tarnished jazz mecca, the Van Beek, which, to his disgust, is now branded ‘Tapas and Tunes’. As he puts it: ‘pick one, do one right’ – a line which forebodes the breakdown of his future relationship with Mia.
Despite living life on the ropes, he still dreams of one day restoring the Van Beek – and jazz – to its past glories.
Mia, on the other hand, has dreams of becoming a Hollywood actress. She is one of many hopefuls auditioning for roles as teachers, policewomen and doctors. Unfortunately, she has to deliver corny lines to disinterested casting agents before leaving, dejected, in a cramped elevator.
To supplement her acting, Mia works as a barista in a studio-lot coffee shop. She deals with complaints about gluten-free pastries and watches open-mouthed as a movie star walks to collect their coffee.
Mia does appear more optimistic than Seb. Where his plain apartment walls suggest he is worn down, Mia, still a dreamer, has a giant Ingrid Bergmann poster on her colourful bedroom wall.
Certainly, the stunning dresses Mia wears to lavish Hollywood pool parties – reminiscent of Judy Garland and Bergman – make her stand out from the crowd like a Hollywood star. As one of the songs suggests, Mia is ‘just waiting to be found.’
A Star is Born
Indeed, Chazelle expertly utilises costume, camera movement and lighting, not only to give the film a dazzling and energetic aesthetic, but as a fascinating undercurrent to the storytelling.
Bright primary colours take focus, like the ones found in Jacques Remy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1963), radiating sheer joy off the screen. Mia’s outfits often reflect – and intensify – the moods of scenes. This includes playful yellows, passionate reds and starry blues. In the magical planetarium scene, she wears a classy green that evokes Garland in A Star is Born (1954).
Similarly, the blues and reds feature prominently in the lighting. Mia is cast in a red glow before she enters the restaurant to first cross paths with Seb. The same red appears in the final scene to anticipate Mia unknowingly entering the jazz club to lock eyes with Seb – perhaps for the final time.
The camera matches this colourful enthusiasm with a dancing fluidity. At the first party, it has a mind of its own – plunging into the pool and spinning around. On other occasions, it glidingly pans up to the sky and back down.
However, the colour and movement begin fade as the romance between Mia and Seb falters. When she attends The Messengers concert and is visibly disappointing to see her boyfriend has ‘sold-out’, Chazelle casts Mia in a cold blue – as if her romantic dreams of Seb have been drained.
We next see Mia at the tense break-up dinner. She wears a reserved dark jumper, as though she is prepared ready to mourn the loss of their relationship. When their argument is over , the jolting sounds of the fire alarm ring out as Chazelle’s camera follows Mia out of the apartment in a shaky documentary style. Reality has finally hit their Hollywood love.
The colour has completely drained when Mia performs her play to an almost empty audience. Seb, missing Mia’s play for his band’s photoshoot, is also in black and white, although he looks comical compared to his normal formal wear. Perhaps this is because he realises he is no longer the serious artist he wanted to be – a notion that is drilled home by the leering and over-the-top British photographer.
These bleak colours had appeared earlier in the film. Mia’s original boyfriend (played by a Yuppie looking Finn Wittrock) wears a grey business suit to dinner along with his brother. In this mundane setting, Mia can’t help but hear the faint jazz music calling her to Seb and the bright red seats of the Rialto cinema.
Likewise, Seb performs in the dimly lit restaurant in the stages of the film. The dull Christmas lights are the only hint of colour – a far cry from the intense blues which light up his jazz club in the final scene.
Speaking of the restaurant, Chazelle recalls his last film – the gripping and visceral Whiplash (2014) – with casting and camera movement. JK Simmons, who played Andrew’s (Miles Teller) ruthless jazz instructor in Whiplash, is Seb’s stern restaurant boss in La La Land.
In a funny turn from Whiplash, this JK Simmons character has no time for free jazz. Instead, he tells Seb to stick to the set list of Christmas carols. After Seb inevitably strays, Chazelle’s camera mimics the quick zooms found in Whiplash to show a disapproving Simmons.
On top of this, the scenes with classic jazz feature on-beat cuts, like in Whiplash, to emphasis what Seb calls the music’s ‘conflict and comprise’.
Past and Present
La La Land is a force of cinema, borrowing from the past to create a timeless spectacle.
The film is littered with well-documented odes to classic cinema, particularly in the musical sequences, imitating everything from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to West Side Story (1961) to Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Even the four seasons structure, mirroring the stages of Mia and Seb’s relationship, is taken from Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
These allusions also make their way onto the LA backdrop as Mia walks past a mural featuring Hollywood greats Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, James Dean and many others. Circularly, Seb later walks by a mural, which he can’t bare to look up at, painted in the image of Hollywood’s next great star – Mia.
For all the praise La La Land received, there have in turn been very vocal critics. David Cox of The Guardian described the film as the ‘tale of two narcissists who sacrifice love for self-interest’
I didn’t quite see it that way.
One particularly revealing scene occurs when Seb surprises Mia at the coffee shop and they walk around the studio-lot. In these moments Chazelle anticipates the rest of the film – and its sentiments.
Mia and Seb are dressed in white tops, as though they are blank canvases ready to be inspired. The two lay out their ambitions and, after telling Mia to pursue her playwriting aspirations, Seb jokes that his ‘work here is done’. Of course, it is only just beginning.
The couple are destined, with love and intense passion, to fuel each other’s dreams. Mia and Seb even peer into a movie-set that they will later dance through in the majestic epilogue – a cheeky Chazelle nod to the fate of their romance.
Yet it is the two mentions of Casablanca (1943) which speak the loudest in this scene – a classic film that showed sacrifice can also be a powerful form of romance.
The final shot of La La Land shows Mia, drenched in a dreamy jazz blue, glancing at Seb across the crowded club. The gentle smile they share says it all. Gratitude, sadness and pride.
They wouldn’t have realised their dreams without each other, but it is time to move on.
There is no shame in that, just love.
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