January 16, 2017
“La La Land has five seasons and each season not only to mark an act, but they also serve as a theme for each chapter of Mia’s and Sebastian’s life which reminds me of Northrop Frye’s Theory of Archetypes.
In his book which was first published in 1957, Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye asserts that all narratives fall into one of four seasons. Each mythos has its own theme and consists of six phases, sharing three with the preceding mythos and three with the succeeding mythos.”
(The lego version of La La Land poster provided by @fbillys)
The world of La La Land is the world where contradiction, paradox, and irony coexisting altogether. It is the world wherein: conflicting elements exist in the same system; conflicting elements revealing a previously unknown truth; and a resolution that is opposite to what would be expected.
As a movie, La La Land consists of contradictive qualities. It’s humorous, but at the same time, serious; it’s uplifting, yet heartbreaking; it’s concave and reflective. It is a hundred and twenty-eight minutes of cinematic escapism that still gives you a taste of realism.
The story of La La Land is set in a place where dreams are built, sold as the main commodity and also shattered into pieces. It’s a place where hope could be turned into hate within seconds. It’s a place for dreamers who should be ready to be losers. It’s a place that constantly sunny and warm, a place called Los Angeles, Tinseltown, City of Angels, or a city that sells entertainment as the main business, a business with uncertainty and complexity.
But, it is the main characters of La La Land who bear the brunt of complexity. They’re a young woman and a young man. They are passionate and incredibly good looking. They live in the modern contemporary world, but their souls seem to be stuck in the old mold of the era when the originators and innovators were alive. They possess the demeanor of the golden age of Hollywood, but the time they’re living in keeps on going forward, not backward. Their idealistic world is based on nostalgia and fantasia, cemented on imageries of silver screens, vinyl records, and memorabilia, presented in the palette of Technicolor.
The young woman’s name is Mia Dolan (played brightly by Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros studio lot in between auditions. One day while she serves behind the cashier machine, a young lady–who wears a fancy and elegant dress–walks into her and orders a cup of cappuccino. She must be a famous actress or a public figure since other customers of the coffee-shop voluntary give her a lot of glances and a space to walk. Mia audaciously scans this young lady who, later to be seen, rides a golf cart accompanied by an assistant. The way Mia stares at her we know she admires this woman. We know that she wants to be like her.
When she is looking for her car, Mia accidentally passes a small club in the downtown of Los Angeles. All of sudden she is hypnotized by a solo piano play. She follows the tunes and she gets surprised to find out it’s the same man he met earlier that day who playing the melody.
La La Land is a musical film, so it’s using music as the way to introduce its protagonists, music as its language to unite a lover. Their fate is bound by the tunes and melody. It’s the young man’s music that calling Mia.
The young man’s name is Sebastian, a struggling jazz musician, but not necessarily a crooner, since the way he sings the songs is more like a pop singer than a jazzy one. It’s the first contradiction I recognize from this film. Sebastian proclaims himself as a “jazz purist”, but he is forced to making ends meet by playing for an eighties retro cover version band (they’re playing songs from A-HA and a one hit wonder band, Flocks and Seagull). He thinks that the real jazz is dying and for that he plans to open his own jazz club, but he barely makes money. He compares himself to phoenix, a mystical creature whose ability of, “rising from the ashes”. He’s sort of a cultural snobbish.
Mia’s and Sebastian’s paths of life seem to cross, again and again, by some odd chances. La La Land clearly tries to bring us into a perspective that this is a movie about a dream. A beautiful and idealistic dream, at first, set in a place where all of the possibilities could happen to you. It’s a hot and bright sunny day in an awfully long queue of the traffic jam on a freeway where Mia and Sebastian meet up for the first time, at the tail end of the opening scene. Mia is seen rehearsing behind the steering wheel of her Prius, practicing some lines of dialogues for her next audition. Apparently, she’s too focus on her script, she doesn’t realize that her car blocking Sebastian’s way in his classic seventies convertible ride. Sebastian honks impatiently, Mia gives her middle finger, and the rest of their journey is inevitable.
It starts in a mechanism of a rom-com movie, a screwball to be specific, a genre that originating in the early 1930’s and finally thriving in the early of 1940’s. It’s a genre of which the two protagonists first meet each other in a humorous circumstance of the battle of the sexes. Screwball comedy movies had their place in the era of great depression and war of which audiences needed an escape. The way Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land, introduces his pair of characters is a nod to the era when motion pictures purely performed a function of escapism. It’s a reminiscence of the moment when Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Kathy Shelden (Debbie Reynolds) meet for the first time in Singing in the Rain. It’s also the first signals that his La La Land is aimed as a throwback to the very good old time of cinema when Hollywood was still depicted lightheartedly and innocently.
Through the opening scene, Chazelle has delineated La La Land with his festive idea of charm: presenting a massive dance sequence of the drivers who stuck on the freeway, emerging from their vehicles, displaying a variety of ethnicity like a proclamation that this is the place for every person of color and race, they’re dancing and singing like nobody business, to leap and twirl between and atop cars in one gliding and swivelling faux-long take, choreographed by Mandy Moore (not that former teenage pop-star) with a fusion of ballet and contemporary dance. Shot on film by cinematographer, Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy) with CinemaScope 55 camera, the grandeur opening scene establishes the film as a paean to old musical movies. It is also a statement from Chazelle that this is a movie about dreams. A joyous one. Or perhaps is it a manifestation of dreams for everyone who suffers boredom over a long traffic jam? Or is it just a welcoming act of a musical play?
Chazelle opens his film with a superimposed text informing that it’s a “winter”, but the opening musical number is titled, “Another Day of Sun”. Christmas Carol and Jingle Bells can be heard everywhere, but snow is nowhere to be found. It’s a noticeable contradiction, although its use of the name of seasons as the title of a chapter in this film has a greater purpose nevertheless.
Chazelle starts his story in “winter” as the first act and ends it, also, in “winter”. It indicates the circle of life, from nothing to something, from nobody to somebody, as his pair of protagonist’s life progress and goes on. The creative choice suggests the structure of four acts and it reminds me of the using of month names to mark each phase of the story in Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic musical experimental film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrella of Cherbourg). It is not the only homage to Catherine Deneuve’s movie. Later, around the mid duration of the movie, we will see Emma Stone’s Mia writing a one-woman-show stage-play with Deneuve’s character name from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Geneviève, as her main heroine.
La La Land has five seasons and each season not only to mark an act, but they also serve as a theme for each chapter of Mia’s and Sebastian’s life which reminds me of Northrop Frye’s Theory of Archetypes.
In his book which was first published in 1957, Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye asserts that all narratives fall into one of four seasons. Each mythos has its own theme and consists of six phases, sharing three with the preceding mythos and three with the succeeding mythos.
Right after the aforementioned epic spectacle musical opening scene, we are being informed that it’s “winter” in La La Land. According to Frye’s theory, winter reflects the theme of “satire and irony”. The process of Mia meeting Sebastian is ironic. They start it with a potency of conflict, even though it’s a cute one, as Mia gives her middle finger to Sebastian. But later, Mia accidentally falls in love with Sebastian after hearing his solo piano play and she ends up glaring at him with an intrigued look as Sebastian hits her and ignores her. This “season” also has a contradictive element since, at the first time they meet, Mia and Sebastian are wearing clothes with different colors, however when they encounter again with each other at the bar, this time, they both are in the same color: Mia is wearing blue dress, so is Sebastian putting up himself in a blue suit. Their color-matching dress-code is an indication that they’re made for each other and it’s ironic. Another contradictive element can be seen by how Sebastian and Mia have a different personal taste from the looks of their cars. When the camera first shots on Sebastian in his car, he is seen busy rewinding a cassette player of his retro convertible car. This is the way how this movie has established Sebastian’s nostalgic, culturally hippie and snobbish personality. Later, also in this season, we’ll see Sebastian recording his piano play with a vinyl-recorder, instead of using a modern recorder. So it is understandable that Sebastian has no cell-phone. Mia is, another way around, seen riding a much more modern-designed car and using iPhone as a tool of communication. The first “winter” in this movie also highlights the quality of satire. Here, we’re being introduced to their struggle for getting their dreams fulfilled in a funny way. We will see Mia auditioning for a role in a blue raincoat since her white shirt accidentally gets spilled by one of her customer’s coffee. Emma Stone’s performance is so excellent here. In a hilarious meta-acting chop, she plays her role before two casting directors as if she’s in the middle of a phone call with somebody. When she’s already in her emotional state, crying over her phone call, her acting gets distracted by someone who suddenly comes into the audition room and she has to have her emotion paused. On the other side of the story, we’re also being informed of how Sebastian burying his ego and pride. Wearing a fancy blue suit and black tie, he looks like Frank Sinatra and seems ready to play an acid jazz repertoire with his piano. But, eventually, he is playing a very standard Christmas songs as his boss (played by J.K Simmons) warns him, “No jazz!”. These funny introductions are a satire of how two people who live and try to make a living in a dream land have to deal with rejections.
It’s a season of comedy and it’s indeed started with a moment of comedy. In a pool party Mia, who wears a soon-to-be-iconic Atelier Versace inspired bright yellow floral printed dress, recognizes Sebastian who, this time wears an eighties look dress-code with a bright orange jacket and dark yellow baggy pant, is playing a gig and A-Ha’s Take on Me with a cover version band. Mia, then, intentionally mocks Sebastian by requesting A Flocks of Seagull’s I Ran to refer their previous encounter in a club at which Sebastian “ran away” from Mia (she also imitates the lyric in front of Sebastian in purpose). “Spring” in La La Land also refers to their blossoming love as they start to feel affection for each other and finding out that they have the same rhythm and beat. In a musical movie, the dance number performs a function as a way for its characters to share the same feeling through a dance. Here, in this season, Mia and Sebastian impulsively have a dance in the bright blue night sky which is also a tribute to a classic musical film, Singing in the Rain. In an iconic-in-the-making tap dance scene, both Mia and Sebastian show that they are attuned to each other. Chazelle uses “spring” and his nostalgia of Hollywood Golden Age era as the frame to show us the process of affirmative action of his characters love life. Mia talks about her fondness for classic films (Casablanca, Notorious, and a screwball movie, Bring Up Baby), Sebastian talks about his passion for jazz, Count Basie, and Chick Webb. Later, we’ll see Mia and Sebastian in white shirts having an excursion through Warner Bros lot, passing the set of Humphrey Bogart’ and Ingrid Bergman’ Casablanca (Mia is a huge fan of Bergman as we can see the big poster of her in Mia’s room)
There’s a cute tension here, though, when Mia admits that she hates jazz and this honest confession leads Sebastian to lecture her about the history of jazz while they’re listening to a quintet bebop jazz band at The Lighthouse Café. They’re seen being involved in a literate-dialogue in which Sebastian shares his fascination about jazz and brings the legendary Sydney Bechet into the plate. There’s a moment here when Sebastian points out how the quintet jazz band they’re listening to always offer something new in their gigs, although they’re playing the same repertoire each night. That’s the moment when I realize, as an avid fan of jazz myself, La La Land has so much jazz in it. One of the jazz’s distinctive qualities that separate itself from other music is polyrhythmic, the ability of jazz as music carrying multiple and contrasting rhythms at the same time. Despite the fact that its plot is built on classic and well-known movies, La La Land is able to define itself as an original material, not only because of the songs but also due to its ability to present itself in layers of contradictive and antithetical elements.
The dialogues between Mia and Sebastian here also reminiscent of Woody Allen’s movies, especially Everyone Says I Love You.
The season of “Spring” in La La Land also provides an iconic dreamy-alike pas de-deux jazz-ballet dance scene at the Griffith Observatory inspired by Rebel Without A Cause, a movie of which Mia and Sebastian watching on their first date. The spring season in La La Land ends by an “iris” editing style commonly used in classic movies bringing up the effect of whimsical old-fashioned filmmaking.
According to Northrop Frye’s The Theory of Archetype, summer is the season of romance and it’s time to romancing Mia and Sebastian relationship. This phase opens with a montage of the couple visiting some places in Los Angeles showing their progressively blossoming love life accompanied by a swing jazz instrumental music. The montage gives us a glance of the youthful innocence of inexperience. The montage includes a scene in which Mia in a pink shirt tap dancing to a live swing jazz music played by Sebastian and the quintet jazz band we’ve previously seen in The Lighthouse Café scene.
This season also marks an enlightened moment for the pairs to evolve. Sebastian realizes that he needs a steady income and he considers to take an offer from his longtime friend, Keith (played by a musician in real life, John Legend), to joining market-oriented pop fusion-jazz band. At first, Sebastian seems reluctant to join. I assume Sebastian is a neo-bop jazz musician whose conservative notions that the best way to save jazz is by keeping the genre pure and untouched by another genre. Sebastian’s hesitation leads Keith to open an honest discussion between the two of them, in which Keith asks Sebastian how he’s going to revolutionize jazz by being a traditionalist ( Keith cites Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk as Sebastian’s vision of pure jazz).
The conversation between those two friends is the moment for Sebastian to have his idealistic view revised. But ironically, this is also the moment for Mia to really believe in her dream and starts to pursue it.
The irony and contradiction are symbolized by the song, City Of Stars. When we first hear this song in “spring”, Sebastian sings it solo, questioning his fate and journey. In “summer”, City of Stars is being sung in duet. Emma Stone’s Mia tries to answer Gosling’s Sebastian question of doubt. Mia sings the song in a humorous and confident way, she sings it with more firm and assertive. By the time Sebastian sings the lyric, “ …Think I want it to stay”, he assures himself that he’s chosen the right path and the editing cut to the scene of him signing the contract and joining Keith’s band.
At the same time, Mia quits her job as the barista and totally pursuing her dream career as an actress. As “City of Stars” keeps on playing, we see a montage that showing the two lovers begin to separate.
The biggest contradiction and irony can be seen in a scene when Mia attending Sebastian’s band, The Messengers’ first concert. The way Sebastian looks at Mia who’s standing in the crowd he thinks that his girl would be proud. But Mia thinks otherwise. She knows something has changed, something that would bring them taking a different path. Mia feels that she’s going to be just “someone in the crowd”, the song she sings earlier in this film.
Fall or Autumn
By the time we enter fall season in La La Land, the irony and contradiction between the pair are getting more serious we’re going to face the season of tragedy. Mia got her own one-woman show stageplay, So Long, funded. The title is also the sign of her to say goodbye to Sebs. Meanwhile, Sebastian is getting busy on tour with his band. He gives up his dreams, Mia keeps on pursuing hers.
There’s a scene of two of them having a surprise dinner arranged by Sebastian in the apartment they’re living together, accompanied by their theme song, “City of Stars”, this time in a swing fast-tempo beat piano solo version. This is the time when they’re arguing over their dreams. It is the time they realize that they could not be together. It’s the time for Mia to say, “This is not home anymore”, as she feels that she’s fighting alone. The editing keeps on highlighting the big contrast between the couple by crosscutting the scenes. It’s also the moment we notice that Mia and Sebastian are wearing dresses with different colors. Mia wears a white shirt symbolizes her pure intention, while Sebastian wearing dark suit reflecting his surrender to the dark side of business. It’s like Chazelle subtly criticizing the industry through his characters.
But Chazelle also puts his story into a paradox, whereas it hints at a promise that the end of the tunnel is going to be bright for Mia and Sebastian.
Sebastian convinces Mia to audition for Amy Brandt, a presumably powerful casting director, whom he was receiving a phone call the other night. In the audition, Mia is being told that the film project she’s about auditioned for will be shot in Paris. It’s kind of resembles Audrey Hepburn’s classic movie, Funny Faces.
We fast forward to five years later. Now, Mia Dolan is a famous actress. She revisits Warner Bros lot and the café she used to work before. Mia is seen wearing a toned-down color and elegant dress, just like the women she admired in the earlier scene. Gone is her one basic colored-dress.
On the other side of the city, Sebastian has his dream of having his own jazz club achieved. By this season, Chazelle proves himself again as an avid nostalgist. But, this time he chooses to reconstruct the previous era of his own film in more ironic and tragic way.
Mia and her-now-husband accidentally visit Sebastian’s jazz café, Sebs. As she enters the café and reads the sign, she is experiencing a déjà vu. It’s like recycling the first moment when she first met Sebastian. But now they’re wearing dresses with totally different colors. They don’t belong to each other.
Chazelle offers an alternative story for the pair. It makes this film has a four acts structure. We see a montage in which the happier version of the story is being told. We hear the medley of “Another Day of Sun” and other numbers are being played to accompany the montage. It’s a dream sequence all over again like we previously see in the opening sequence. In a musical stage-play, there’s a part following the epilog in which all the casts show up on stage performing recurrent musical numbers. The alternative montage performs the same function as the musical stage play does, but Chazelle changes the order to create the maximum impact of contradiction, paradox, and irony.
The alternative montage is also the homage and tribute to classic musical movies, such as Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris.
But the real ending is the real gem, as it shows Sebastian and Mia now have a platonic relationship. They are now exchanging glances to each other, a very deep and meaningful long glance. It’s a glance that indicates they’re still in love each other, but they’re fully aware that they should choose different paths. It’s a statement that we can only achieve one dream. Sometimes we have to leave our past behind in order to succeed in something. This great, but smothering ending, is kind of a paean to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and a 1927’s movie, 7th Heaven.
It’s noticeable that Chazelle and his editor, Tom Cross, use a contrasting approach as the story goes by. In the first “winter” until “spring”, the editing heavily relies on “panning” and “invincible editing” to create the illusion of a long unbroken dream. This choice of editing helps the film to deliver energetic and frenetic pace, as these two first phase of Mia’ and Sebastian’ life are indeed like an idealistic dream. But as the story reaches the phase of “summer” and “autumn”, the editing is more fractured and the pace is slower. It suggests the message that the dream begins to fade and the characters should’ve stepped on reality.
The Performance and The Music
The greatness of La La Land is built on its two leading stars.
Gosling is excellent, tough and sardonic. He plays Sebastian in a way of convincing portrayal of a guy who’s adorable, charismatic, lovable, and miserable at the same time.
While as for Stone, this is her best performance so far. Her huge doe eyes radiating intelligence and they’re more shining when they’re filling with tears. Her Mia Dolan is witty, smart, and vulnerable at the same time. Together with Gosling’s Sebastian, Stone’s character without a doubt would be voted as the new iconic couple in cinema.
There are some irritating comments about how their performances are overrated. Some people are thinking that they’re not true musical stars with big-vibrato singing voices. The story of La La Land is the story of two ordinary people who live in their dreams. The musical numbers in this film is the way of filmmakers to portraying their dreams. Their imperfection in singing is designed to make their story accessible for everyone. To implying everyone could have their dreams.
La La Land’s music of which is composed by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (save for “Start A Fire”, which was written by Hurwitz, John Legend, Angélique Cinélu and Marius de Vries), combines and heighten ups of the old Hollywood musical with a realistic, nuanced, and modern look at everyday life. Every song in this movie is about character and story.
There’s a Michel Legrand’s DNA in La La Land music. Legrand is a legendary music composer and jazz pianist well-known for his long collaboration with French director, Jacques Demy. Like Legrand’s music, Hurwitz’s composition is able to marry jazz rhythm section and jazz big band with a full blown romantic orchestra. It’s also hard not to notice the heavy using of flutes to enrich the melody in this movie. It gives the nuance of 50’s to 60’s jazz music, commonly found in French movies. The result is memorable and easily hooked on music.
I have watched La La Land three times now. And I definitely will watch it again and again. A modern musical movie is easy to be found, but La La Land is an example of the movie of a lifetime.
It’s because the complexity of paradox, contradiction, and irony qualities this movie carries. It’s dreamy and reality. It’s nostalgic and majestic.
I’ve never remembered a quote about nostalgia in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as strong as I had after watching La La Land. In that 2011 movie, Michael Sheen’s character, Paul, famously says, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Like Midnight in Paris, La La Land is a paean to the old time of cinema and culture. It’s a love letter to culture at its best, but also a very funny and heartfelt criticism. These two movies admire the past, but also warn us to face the future.
The title of La La Land could be interpreted into many meanings. The words of “La” in French means “the”, a word in English to point a determination of a place or a thing whose specific or well-known quality.
In jazz, there’s a technique of singing called “scat singing” of which comprises nonsense syllables, such as “ la la la” to give more rhythm to the song in addition to the beat. Like the syllable of “ la la”, sometimes a dream is a nonsensical thing. You may believe and pursue it, but you cannot let yourself be drowned in it.
That’s the beauty of La La Land. It may be a nonsense for some people, but it has a sense of adventure and endless charm. And oh la la, c’est manifique !
Reviewed at Epicentrum XXI, on January 10, 2017
Running time: 128 minutes
Imported for Indonesia market by Prima Cinema Multimedia
A Lionsgate release of a Summit Entertainment, Gilbert Films, Imposter Pictures, Marc Platt production.
Produced by Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt, Gary Gilbert.
Director, screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Camera (color, widescreen, CinemaScope55): Linus Sandgren
Editor: Tom Cross.
Music composed by Justin Hurwitz
Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (save for “Start A Fire”, which was written by Hurwitz, John Legend, Angélique Cinélu and Marius de Vries)
Production designer: David Wasco
Casts: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Meagan Fay.