Rating: 5/5 Buckets
This film was a complete shock. If you would have told me at the beginning of 2016 that my favorite film of the year would be a musical, I would have made the most outrageous bet of my life. I’m a man. I like watching football, drinking beer, and eating raw steak with my bare hands…you know, guy stuff. Musicals are lame fantasies for girls, right? Not this time. This film had a lot depth to it and actually had a purpose…a deeper meaning. It wasn’t just about a love story, it was about life and how life changes. The story was extremely well-told through two mediums: 1) Damien Chazelle’s brilliant directing, and 2) Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s rich chemistry. But first, we have to identify what that deeper meaning is to understand what story our two mediums are trying to tell.
MAJOR THEME: CHANGE
Change in Film
The first theme this movie tackles is how the film industry has changed over time. We all can look back on classic films that we love because of the magic they delivered. The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, Grease, and the original Star Wars trilogy are a few examples of this magic that Hollywood delivered. However, the times have changed. Musicals aren’t a successful genre and happy ending romantic movies are considered cliché. Movies have taken a drastic turn towards realism, and realism is dark and brutal. There is no black and white. Everything has shades of grey to it. Heroes are broken. Villains are redeemable. Just take a look at the differences between villains in the 1990s and the 2000s. The 1990 stereotypical villain was a purely evil creature that was out to do evil for evil’s sake, or as I like to call them, mustache-twirling villains. Now think of villains in the 2000s. They were misunderstood people that you could sympathize with. Think of The Prestige. The film didn’t have a villain or a hero. It had two incredibly complex rival magicians suffering from tragic backstories. Recent films have focused on the simple, broken nature of humanity, but don’t worry optimists! It won’t last. Film will continue to change as an evolving culture demands it to. La La Land ends by drawing attention to the fact that entertainment is a continuously changing industry, which I’ll get more into later.
Change in Life
Secondly, La La Land addresses the changes in life. Life has many twists and turns along the way, such as careers and especially relationships. La la land takes a deep look into both of these but its heart and soul is its portrayal of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship arc. At first, relationships are easy and magical. Love is in the air, birds sing and unicorns dance on double rainbows. And then, life can get in the way. Work schedules, other relationships, and personal dreams directly conflict with the romantic relationship. The pressure forces the relationship to change for better or worse. Sebastian and Mia’s relationship arc throughout the entire film perfectly captures this journey from their relationship’s infancy to the final moment of the film.
DAMIEN CHAZELLE’S DIRECTING
Damien Chazelle has been making quite a splash recently. He made La La Land directly off the heels of Whiplash. Speaking of, imagine how awesome it would have been if J. K. Simmons would have gone up to Ryan Gosling at the restaurant and sternly whispered “are you rushing or are you dragging?” Instant Oscars sweep! Anyway, Chazelle’s directing hasn’t gone unnoticed for good reason. It is absolutely incredible. Every little aspect of his directing was deliberately chosen to tell a story. Not necessarily the characters’ stories, but a story about how dreams change as life progresses; about what happens when reality sets in on our fantasies for what life is going to be. Let’s take a look at two directing choices that tell this story.
The way a film is shot generally helps tell a story about the characters. For example, a low angle camera shot of a villain helps tell the audience this is a villain with power and should be feared. Most films use the camera angles to supplement the characters’ stories. La La Land, however, uses camera movements to tell a story in and of itself without abandoning characters’ stories. It is brilliant. The camera movements change throughout the film. Remember this is a story about dreams meeting reality. The beginning of the film uses large, grand scale shots to give the scenes a dose of magic. Think of the large opening number or the dancing in the stars at the Griffith Observatory. These shots represent how we feel about our future dreams, especially as a kid. Remember how you thought you’d be a sports superstar, famous actor, or legendary musician? There wouldn’t be a care in the world and everything would be perfect, right? But what happens when real life sets in and those dreams don’t pan out the way you thought? Chazelle captured that feeling by transitioning to close up, shaky camera movements with a low color pallet. The closeness of the shots make it feel much more personal and the shaking produces a realistic, gritty vibe. The low color pallet makes the world feel dull, like a world without dreams. In the end, Chazelle used a new (at least I’ve never seen it anywhere else) camera movement that is a combination of the two. Chazelle slowly zooms in on Emma Stone’s face while the camera slowly “shakes.” It made me feel like there was a dark moment occurring but it was ok…like there was still magic in the midst of darkness. This final shot style was absolutely essential to the story because it added depth to the theme of change. The film doesn’t settle for stating things will change. It goes further by addressing what happens after changes occur. What happens after dreams (career, love, etc.) don’t turn out to be what they were supposed to be? What happens when your dreams come true but at too high of a cost? The camera movements can seem so simple but they were essential to the film’s success.
Background Noise & Musical Numbers
Just as the camera movements evolved throughout the film, so did the musical numbers. The musical numbers in the first half of the film capture a sense of hope-filled resilience to any of life’s punches. Numbers like “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” demonstrate this feeling perfectly. “Another Day of Sun” contains lyrics where aspiring artists sing about the hope and dreams they have, which completely eclipse their lack of money or status. They are chasing their dreams in the sky after all; and you can’t see the thistles on the ground when you’re constantly looking up. “Someone in the Crowd” has a similar hopeful and larger than life feeling, but instead it focuses on the idea that any turn in the road could be the one that explodes an arts career to the top. The numbers in the beginning are upbeat and almost demand the listener to dance like that weird cousin from every wedding ever. Then the numbers begin to change with songs like “Audition” and “City of Stars” that emanate a sense of sincerity and heartache. These numbers won’t make someone want to dance, but rather they force the listener to sit still and contemplate issues in reality. The transition from the upbeat numbers in the beginning to the sincere numbers towards the end is powerful because it tells the overall story how one perceives a dream can change over time. For example, “Another Day of Sun” and “Audition” are both about dreams and both mention the hardships associated with achieving those dreams. However, the first plays off the hardships as negligent while the latter focuses on what dreams might truly cost. The transition is very similar to how the idea of true love changes over someone’s lifetime. This marks another brilliant move by Damien Chazelle to tell a story about change through the eyes of something everyone can relate to, a relationship.
GOSLING AND STONE’S CHEMISTRY
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s chemistry in this film is absolutely off the charts. Without this, the entire film would fail. They not only have to tell a compelling story about their romance, but they also have to tell an even more compelling narrative about what happens when reality and dreams collide. This demands that both have the acting range to make the audience believe in their relationship from the honeymoon phase to the disaster stage to the moving on stage. If either Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone could not pull this off in a believable way, the film would have fallen flat despite the brilliant writing behind their characters. However, both actors flawlessly executed their characters and told an extremely compelling story that engaged the audience at every turn. Their comedic timing throughout their witty banter was absolutely seamless. During the pool party scene you just couldn’t stop grinning like an idiot seeing how the two leads played off each other. The proof of their charm is irrefutable. Emma Stone has her Oscar and Ryan Gosling has the unending infatuation from every female on the planet, which definitely includes my wife. Their chemistry went far beyond comedic timing and bled into their dramatic scenes. They made the audience feel the heartache during their break-up because they executed the subtle facial expressions and body language necessary to deliver compelling dramatic performances. For example, their dinner fight scene was subtle. The beauty was in the details. In fact, the ending of this film would have completely failed without talented actors delivering the subtle details of a subtle, but powerful moment.
There was a brief, three second moment when Mia is leaving Seb’s that changed the message of the film. Without it, the film would have focused on how much pain and struggle change brings, including the costs of going after your dreams. Instead, the film changed to show how even though things don’t always turn out as anticipated, the hard times can be appreciated because of where they bring you. The moment I’m referring to is when Mia and Sebastian share a glance at each other before they presumably part ways forever. In that moment, they both feel the pain of knowing what could have been, but it doesn’t end there. That look transitions into a subtle smile that acknowledges how their time together brought them to a place where they are both happy without the other. This sends the message to the audience that even though they could have been happy together, they each ended up in a great place where they could be content. They each appreciated the good and bad times from their relationship and recognized the role it played to propel them to their dream. This subtle moment drastically changed the film from a negative look on life to a positive one. These details throughout the film is what made this my favorite film of 2016.