La La Land (2016), dir. Damien Chazelle

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The 2017 Oscars have placed Hollywood in dilemma. Contenders like Manchester by the Sea, The Salesman and I Am Not Your Negro were produced or distributed by Amazon Studios. Suicide Squad won an Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Debates shall be eternally waged over Moonlight vs. La La Land.

La La Land still won 6 Oscars.

Though Stone is powerful, Portman was more affecting in Jackie. Linus Sandgren won an Oscar for cinematography, yet the film only looks as good as it does because of choreography and costume design; Moonlight and Silence were more creative in their image composition. The most beautiful, heart-warming ode to life, 20th Century Women, didn’t even secure an Oscar for its incredibly crafted screenplay.

Was La La Land overhyped? As Dan Golding argues in his essay The Dreamers of La La Land, the film is “likely to suffer the fate of most other life-affirming Hollywood hits”, as “too light, too fluffy, too insubstantial, too reactionary, too nostalgic”. Yet there is power in positive narratives, beyond identity formation in Moonlight or confronting mortality in Manchester by the Sea. Some might question the Academy Awards’ favourability towards films about the acting industry or show business in general, like The Artist (2011) or Birdman (2014), yet they won Oscars because they’re good films.

Moonlight is a victory for independent cinema, yet La La Land still challenges the established Hollywood system. Lionsgate’s identity is disparate, with young adult series like Twilight (2008-12) and The Hunger Games (2012-15) and horror films like American Psycho (2000) and the Vestron Video catalogue, yet the studio is gaining greater credibility within a changing media landscape. Focus Features, wanting a $1 million budget and Sebastian as a rock musician, dropped it under a regime change. Musicals had been driven by the studio system, with 20th Century Fox and MGM and outliers like RKO showcasing their leading men and women.

In test screenings, La La Land was deemed a failure. Musicals relied on innovation and subversion to survive, from rock operas like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000) to jukebox musicals like Moulin Rouge! (2001), becoming easy properties to adapt from the aged original cast in Rent (2005) to Les Misérables (2012). Disney used live action musicals like Beauty and the Beast (2017) to inspire new audiences. Musicals live on nostalgia; Grease (1978) looked back to the simpler time of the 1950s. La La Land succeeds existing as both throwback and innovator, adapting to the modern world without sacrificing core tenets.

Meeting in their college band, Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz built the soundtrack as co-collaborators, reaching for a timeless sound; recording with a 90-piece orchestra in the same room as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with a sense of profound legacy. With dynamic painted sets from designers Sandy and David Wasco, the film developed an impressive visual aesthetic on its $30 million budget, rehearsing scenes on iPhones with choreographer Mandy Moore. In the stunning opening, Another Day of Sun, what David Bordwell describes as a “blowout”, we see the immensity of the 105-110 interchange as Mia (Emma Stone) drives to her audition and meets Seb (Ryan Gosling), theatrical as people dance on top of cars, shot over 48 hours on the hottest day of the year. Using the fluid motion of a crane, Chazelle emphasises individuality: sound becomes collage, cars honk and radios blare, multi-coloured crowds of different ethnicities drive different cars, or even skateboard.

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The opening musical sequence, Another Day of Sun, is filled with colour and diversity

La La Land frames anachronistic protagonists against an anachronistic world. As David Sims writes, they are “trapped in amber”. Seb is a hipster, listening to cassettes in his car and vinyl records at home. Mia is a barista on the Warner Bros backlot, walking past cowboys and gladiators shot on soundstages. Writing the script to her one-woman show, So Long Boulder City, she uses physical paper, heaven forbid she use a Macbook. At the party, the film frames immediate nostalgia, Seb performing I Ran and Take on Me in an 80s college band alongside Chazelle and Hurwitz’s college buddy D.A. Wallach; Mia even calls him George Michael.

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Mia works as a barista on the WB backlot

The film relies upon intertextuality, opening in Cinemascope and ending with a titlecard. Chazelle uses in-camera optical effects to depict movement in the party or being lost amid the city’s neon signs. Moving from Mia and Seb’s relationship, a model plane flies around the globe, a la 1930s adventure serials.

In her bedroom, Mia is watched down upon by actresses of Hollywood’s past, with posters of Ingrid Bergman, The Black Cat (1934), The Killers (1946) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), alongside her colour-coordinated roommates, draped in headscarf and fur. Achieving her actress dream, she becomes an Audrey Hepburn clone, adorned with fashionable sunglasses.

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Mia’s bedroom is an anachronism

Chazelle found influences from sources as diverse as Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) for City of Stars, West Side Story (1961) for Someone in the Crowd and Singin’ in the Rain as Seb grabs hold of a lamppost. As Chazelle says in The Verge, he “combine[d] those things in new ways”, carrying a subtextual self-awareness of “characters knowing they’re in a musical”.

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Seb is singing, just not in the rain

JK Simmons’ restaurant owner is an “inside joke” to Whiplash (2014): according to the commentary, he “decided he despises jazz and only wants to hear Christmas jingles for the rest of his life”. Made on a smaller scale, paving the way for La La Land’s larger budget, the rapid editing of jazz sequences evoke the masterful rhythm of the drumbeat in Whiplash, alongside the jazz themes of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009).

Los Angeles itself is throwback, beyond the dark city of Mulholland Drive (2001) but an explosion of colour, between the El Rey Theater, Lighthouse Café and Angel’s Flight railway; cinematographer Linus Sandgren sought to capture a feeling of “something magical”. Seb stares out, a painted mural for California oranges behind him. As he comments in a featurette, Chazelle didn’t want to pretend “L.A. was a city that it wasn’t”; location manager Robert Foulkes sought locations never represented before.

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This is definitely California

Inscribed within cinematic history, Mia points Seb to the window balcony from Casablanca (1942), an unacknowledged monument; she walks past murals of Chaplin and Monroe in nighttime streets. At the Rialto in Pasadena, Mia and Seb attend a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), film within a film. An anachronism: resurrecting the largely defunct Rialto, closing it once more amidst a wave of gentrification and redevelopment. At the dinner table, we overhear a conversation as a party bemoans the cinema experience.

Moving to the Griffith Observatory as a dream, we delve within, walking the path of James Dean. In his essay From Los Angeles to La La Land: Mapping Whiteness in the Wake of Cinema, Billy Stevenson argues “all the homosocial angst […] is smoothed away”, “canonising and sterilising” what made it “provocative and edgy”. Writing in Paste, Geoff Nelson argues the film speaks in a displaced “vocabulary of loss” as generational conflict between past and present, rather than disaffected youth and conservative parents in Rebel.

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The Griffith Observatory is one of the most beautiful locations for the City of Stars sequence, evoking Rebel Without a Cause

Chazelle feels the city has been “careless and negligent” about its cinematic history. Which brings us to what Golding describes as Sebastian’s “jazzsplaining. Seb’s makes Mia love jazz, refusing its death under his watch. Black musician Keith (John Legend), arguing that “jazz is about the future”, is sidelined. As Ira Madison III comments, the city’s diversity in the opening is “quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.

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Keith is largely sidelined in the film

Golding argues La La Land embodies an “alternative universe”, ignoring its roots as a Hispanic and Latino Mexican city. Seb appropriates a cultural heritage of jazz, disallowing minority residents to “samba all over its history”. For Stevenson, it invokes an “older media ecology” where “cinema was never supplanted or supplemented” by “multifarious voices”. As Nelson writes, nostalgia returns us to “the era before federally mandated segregation, voting and civil rights”, forgetting racial history or housing discrimination.

Writing in 2010 as he arrived in Hollywood, as Chazelle tells The Verge, he was touching on “experiences that were very close to my own”, capturing the truth of a city of “unrealistic dreams, within the real world. Musicals are dreams: a perfect woman finding her perfect husband and life. La La Land tries to reconcile these dreams with our reality.

In Whiplash, we see the intensity of Andrew’s obsession to cartoonish level, his hands bleeding as he drums, in a car crash as he goes to his performance unscathed. Writing in Little White Lies, Tom Bond argues “it’s hard to argue that Chazelle fully endorses this message”, Andrew feeling “romantic love can only ever hinder artistic success”; in La La Land, Mia and Seb become “more in love with their partner’s mutual passion” than each other, becoming a means to achieving career ambitions. As Bordwell argues, the film rejects conventional musical narratives of love triangles and subplots in favour of emotion, shifting between changing seasons.

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Jazzsplaining isn’t romantic

Seb plays at weddings, going on tour for two years yet rejecting the notion of innovating through synth, idolising Louis Armstrong as he attempts to walk the same path. Working at a cocktail bar, Seb is caught between playing his own music and the Christmas music assigned to him. During a photoshoot, Seb is forced into a pose by the photographer, artificially in a place that doesn’t come from the heart. Music becomes a background distraction, beyond the live traditional jazz Seb favours.

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Seb decides to play his own music at Christmas

Leon Thomas argues in his Renegade Cut analysis that Seb becomes an egotist and “music martyr”, rejecting the notion of “paying bills and working for a boss”, interested in his own needs over others. As he retorts:

Oh no, Seb, you have to make sacrifices for money and work your way up in your chosen profession? How do you think life works?

Through Mia’s auditions, we see the realities of the acting industry, her opening audition met by the casting director on their cellphone, based on an audition Ryan Gosling had gone through. She spills coffee on her shirt, covering it up with her coat. In Someone in the Crowd, we see Mia’s isolation, rather than being popular and successful. Her Prius gets towed; no one turns up to her one-woman play. Yet if she likes it, what else matters? Forced to return home to Nevada after 6 years of auditions and perseverance, she must live her own dream; in The Fools Who Dream, we see the speed and pressure. Stone “whirl[s] through five feelings in one minute: delight, confidence, panic, pain, false bravado, filled with life.

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Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem

Seb is neither Mia’s first nor last love, questionably cheating on her boyfriend in favour of Seb, away from the fantasy of the woman who runs away with the first guy she falls in love with. As the film progresses, costume designer Mary Zophres de-saturated her wardrobe, maturing into adulthood. In the fantasy, we see the artifice of the alternative universe relationship of what could have been, a Parisian dream between Hollywood sets, shot in an anachronistic 8mm home movie aesthetic. Narratively fooling the viewer, we return to reality, as Mia remains with her husband in the present, 5 years later, successful in her celebrity lifestyle with a nanny looking after her daughter.

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Positioning Mia and Seb against a half-finished white painted backdrop, Chazelle questions the unreality of the musical

The film justifies its existence, questioning the fiction of the musical. Chazelle penetrates the artifice with iPhone notifications and ringtones, bleeding into the film’s soundscape. The print of Rebel Without a Cause becomes caught in the projector; as Golding acknowledges, “old technology that has erroneously been remembered as better than it was” burns to flame.

Some superficial criticisms might question the film’s performers, yet Emma Stone came to the film straight from Cabaret; Ryan Gosling spent 3 months learning and rehearsing the piano. John Legend is an actual singer. From its direction to music to production design, La La Land remains a masterwork. It’s just not Moonlight.