La La Land
Director: Damian Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Is La La Land Overrated or Good?
La La Land came out as one of the most anticipated films of the year. There’s no doubt that this is in part due to the star draw of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, as well as being Damien Chazelle’s second major release since the highly acclaimed Whiplash, but it really does deserve the praise.
Chazelle’s genius as both a director and a musical aficionado is clearly on show here, stylishly blending big musical numbers with quiet contemplative drama. Sure, it may be packed full of cliches - the wannabe actress and writer, the musician who wants to save jazz, the sunset Hollywood romance - but equally it also plays with these and subverts them. The film is far more plot driven than many other musicals and has a lot more depth than naysayers give it credit for. It is not simply a cheesy love story, but a dissection of how our ambitions and relationships often are irrevocably at odds with each other.
What has really made La La Land one of the biggest films of the year however is the simple fact that it is just a very well done musical. Successful original film musicals have been virtually non existent this century, barring a few alternative cult classics such as John Carney’s Once, but La La Land embraces the heritage of Hollywood’s Golden Era and yet still manages to feel fresh and interesting. Could this be the start of a renaissance?
"City of stars, there's so much that I can't see. Who knows? Is this the start of something wonderful and new? Or one more dream that I cannot make true?"
Can Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone actually sing and dance?
Whenever a Hollywood star takes to the Broadway stage or embarks on a pop career there is always a certain amount of criticism that they do not have the credentials and they are only there on fame alone. Similarly, many have questioned the choice of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a screen musical.
Seeing Emma Stone perform ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ then is a revelation. Not only can she sing but the level of emotion she brings to the scene is remarkable. In many of the bigger dance numbers she also more than holds her own. It will be unsurprising then that she has already had a run on Broadway in a revival of Cabaret, as well as other musical roles in her adolescence. She may not be the world’s best singer, but she’s more than good enough to pull it off.
Ryan Gosling also isn’t too bad. He may not be the most naturally comfortable singing and dancing but he pulls it off and works well with Chazelle’s direction. Often his character is melancholically groaning his songs and Gosling not being a bombastic singer helps make his character feel more real and natural rather than stagey.
Despite being one of the most high profile film musicals in many years, a lot of the movie takes place in intimate dialogue driven scenes rather than big song and dance numbers. Arguably having seasoned actors who can pull off both heart wrenching scenes and light hearted comedy is more important than a pitch perfect Broadway singer. The added millions their faces on posters undoubtedly added to box office taking cannot hurt either.
What is the deal with the endng of La La Land?
Towards the end of the film it is clear we are not going to get the standard romantic Hollywood ending. Sebastian and Mia have put their dreams in front of their relationships and have gone their separate ways. Skip five years into the future and Mia and her husband stumble into Seb’s jazz club. As she hears the opening notes of their theme, a vast imagined alternative-reality unfolds, where Seb and Mia have stayed together and things worked out, but as the song ends she snaps back to reality and leaves the club.
For some, this is a disappointment, but for many this is the crowning point of the film. Not only is this not just a stereotypical love story, but we’re also given a unique exploration of how and why we make choices in life. For Seb and Mia, their choice between their dreams and their relationship is not simple. They have no idea if either will succeed, but they choose the passions that have driven most of their lives, rather than a new relationship. We are given an insight into how both paths could turn out, both having their happy and sad times, but ultimately it is the pragmatic view that lifelong ambitions are far more irreplaceable than good relationships.
Is Ryan Gosling Actually Playing the Piano?
In the film industry actors are used to subbing in doubles for anything that may involve danger or specialist skill. Playing a musical instrument is not different.
Despite this, Ryan Gosling does not have any hand doubles in La La Land, playing the piano himself in every seen. Sure, he’s not playing the piano for the soundtrack (that's pianist Randy Kerber), but he still managed the impressive task of learning the songs well enough in only a few months to manage to convince the camera.
He even caught the eye of his co-star and musician, John Legend who said "I was jealous, man. "Watching him play, I was like, 'Wow, this guy is really good.'"
Is La La Land based on Casablanca?
For those who are fans of the Bogart and Bergman classic, it is hard not to notice the parallels between La La Land and Casablanca. Although it is not an adaptation of the film, Damien Chazelle was clearly hugely influenced by it and even pays homage to it frequently.
Mia explains to Seb that, across the Warner Brothers lot which she works in, is the window that Bergman and Bogart looked out of in Casablanca. Paris is the ominously distant city where key decisions in both sets of relationships are made. Mia even has a gigantic poster of Bergman covering her bedroom.
The most striking moment of all is the final scene. As Mia walks into Seb’s, it is impossible not think of the moment when Isla walks into Rick’s. As Mia and Sebastian’s theme plays, it is clearly their ‘As Time Goes By’.
“I think you should call it Seb's because no one will come to a place called Chicken on a Stick”
Is the Singing in La La Land Live?
In recent years, the film adaptation of Les Miserables has thrust the idea of live singing on film back into limelight. Rather than recording vocals in a studio and then miming along while filming on set, actors were piped the soundtrack through earpieces to sing live to, which was then captured for the soundtrack.
Despite clearly not used in some songs such as the huge opening all-singing, all-dancing Another Day of Sun, Damien Chazelle did record many of the cast vocals live on set. The second version of City of Stars features live vocals from both leads, giving the scene an incredible natural feel. Most notably however, is Audition, in which Emma Stone begins a monologue before working into a delicate vocal that builds to a big choral finish.
These moments help give the film a far more natural feel that helps offset the big elaborate numbers and makes everything more real. A big step from the overly produced and auto tuned musicals of recent years.
What About the Jazzplaining?
Over the past few years we’ve slowly got to the end of our tether with the continued insistence that screenwriters have of creating strong male leads that continually laud their intellect over vapid female co-stars. Although not every filmmaker is guilty of this, it is definitely still a problem, with the opposite rarely occurring.
Many have taken issue with La La Land for ‘jazzplaining’ rather than simply mansplaining. Gosling’s character, a young white male, not only has to open Emma Stone’s eyes to the brilliance of jazz, but also sees it his mission to protect the legacy of the original jazz greats, such as Davis, Parker, Coltrane and Armstrong. Some find this slightly uncomfortable, especially when the antithesis exists in John Legend’s brand of modern jazz-pop.
Is it really that bad? Well, no. Damien Chazelle clearly has a true reverence for the music. More importantly however, the characters of Mia and Keith are both strong and well developed, each finding their own success. If it was a clearly a case of Gosling being the golden saviour, then these arguments might be more founded. Keith’s music is never portrayed as bad and arguably the big crowd draws of his shows and making jazz relatable could do more to save the music than Seb ever could. La La Land is a film of paths and choices and one is never shown as necessarily right or wrong.
Sure, the film would have added depth if it was a black musician trying to save the legacy of an artform that created some of the very first world famous black superstars in a time of enormous inequality. But Gosling’s name on the poster instantly adds millions to box office returns and is hard for any producer refuse. Arguably the biggest issue here is a film industry where few black actors are ever given the roles to help them become those superstars. Sadly, La La Land is not the film to buck this trend.
"I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I'll hit back. It's a classic rope-a-dope"
But, Gosling and Stone weren't even the original first choice...
Despite this being the third film to star Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone together, following Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, they weren’t originally slated to appear in La La Land. Originally, Emma Watson and Miles Teller were set for the leads, while Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were set to star in Focus.
Arguably however everything worked out perfectly - Focus was a bit of a flop so they dodged a bullet that instead ended up with Will Smith and Margot Robbie, while Watson was far more suited to the bookish and wholesome Belle and Stone shone in the more fiery and passionate role.