My Cinematic Love Letter to Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’
For me, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was not love at first sight. It was not magical, and the songs did not sweep me off my feet. I grew up watching High School Musical (yes, I am a Disney kid) as a teenager and Indian cinema with its magical musical numbers; so, why did I dislike La La Land? The story and the characters didn’t resonate with me on my first watch. I thought it was unrealistic and the lack of acknowledgement of the history of Jazz music wasn’t explored enough in the movie.
While there are issues such as the whiteness of La La Land, it is lavishly shot and portrays realistic and dreamlike sequences of the mystical Los Angeles, with energetic songs and dance sequences about dreamers chasing after their goals and romance fluttering in the air. Everything and everybody shimmers and shines, but it did not grab my attention as it did with Chazelle’s previous films.
La La Land revolves around aspiring actor Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). They first meet when his car honking breaks her concentration as she rehearses for her audition. Both of them dream of getting their big break in Hollywood. Mia works in a coffee shop, and Sebastian was recently fired from a restaurant where he plays the piano. The struggling artists meet again under the starry lights of Los Angeles, and they begin an affair, as they shine each other’s lights and fill their hearts.
Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash, is one of my favourite movies. The soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz was brilliantly composed, with each score bringing out a raw emotion of the character’s feelings in the movie. As much as I loved the movie, the score was the part that made me come back to watch the student and master fight against each other time and time again. When La La Land was released, I expected it to grab my attention since it was a new collaboration between director Chazelle and composer Hurwitz. I had high expectations and my first watch did not hold up to Whiplash. There is a raw fierceness and tension when the student plunges into the music with bloodied hands, which is an aspect that I expected in La La Land. Whiplash has impromptu drum solos that are some of the best musical breaks I’ve seen in any film. The melodies in La La Land are not quite the same — and they’ll never be — because these movies are different. However, both of these movies bring a timeless charm that clung to me.
Part of why La La Land did not grab my attention at first was due to the overhyped awards buzz. Critics and award shows praised the movie’s spectacular plot, cinematography, songs, and choreography and I did not believe it deserved the kind of acclaim it was receiving. In addition to this, the central characters’ experiences in Hollywood and the jazz scenes are centred on whiteness. Sebastian’s insistence on saving jazz from commercial and modern pop stars and his frustration when he works alongside John Legend’s character is a subplot that seems arrogant considering the history of jazz music. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Americans and Europeans were exposed to African folk music, which was eventually introduced as a new genre called “jazz music.” Over the decades, the new genre evolved through artists who created and altered their styles.
La La Land doesn’t dive too deep into racial politics or the history of jazz music. It appropriates the cultural practice by centring two white characters in a history that is unique to African Americans and makes it harder to resonate with the audience. It seems that Chazelle was more focused on showing the emotional journeys of the characters than the historical cultural practice of jazz music. The movie repeatedly makes references to old Hollywood movies, so why didn’t it make the time to pay homage to African American culture? It seems insensitive to the larger traditions of the history embedded within jazz music to completely leave it aside to focus on the characters’ journeys. Keith (Legend) is the only important Black character that plays music but creates commodified pop music and tacky dance routines, both of which infuriate the jazz-loving Sebastian.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I hate musicals. I love musicals. From Disney movies like Enchanted to Across The Universe to High School Musical and Mamma Mia, these movies shaped and changed my life. The music and the choreography heighten everything about this genre. Whether these musicals tell “real stories” or not, these movies are filled with a range of emotions where I could just zone out and it would change my mood. I grew up watching Indian movies as a kid, and I admit, Indian cinema is another level of experience that Hollywood musicals do not have. Perhaps that is where my love of musicals started, but my redemption arc with La La Land was an experience that I thought would never happen.
Regardless of these opinions, I decided to give La La Land a chance one more time. Together, Mia and Sebastian tapped and sang around Los Angeles, where they get suspended in the air and waltz in a planetarium, singing about falling in love and wishing for a better tomorrow. The movie starts with a show-stopping dance sequence on a traffic-jammed freeway, where dancers twirl around and across the roof of the cars. It’s colourful and offers spontaneous bursts of loud excitement for the story that is ahead. The camera swerves and shifts to the rhythm of the dancers and there is no moment to miss. “Another Day of Sun” should have made me realise the kind of appreciation it had for the musical as a craft with its spontaneous energy. The movie gushes about the romance in songs like “City of Stars,” “Planetarium,” and “A Lovely Night.”
The magic of La La Land continues in the second meet-cute between Mia and Sebastian called “A Lovely Night.” It’s the start of a romance where two lovers are bickering with each other, confessing that they will not be right for each other. Set in a beautiful landscape and streetlights that focuses on these two because they tap dance on the bench and waltz together. It’s a sequence where Mia and Sebastian flirt with each other and their budding romance begins. It’s magical and fantastical, set against the purple and blues of the night, where the two lovers finally succumb to their lingering feelings through dance and song. This sequence filled with tap dancing and romance felt like it could still be worth redeeming, and for me, it was.
During “City of Stars,” Sebastian hums along to the tune while walking on the pier after a date with Mia. An old couple dancing catches his eye and his feelings often seem as though he wants to dance with Mia. It’s a melancholic tune sung by Gosling alone but later, Stone duets with him when they move in together. This song is an anthem for the movie and conveys the kind of romance and mystery that Los Angeles is famous for. For me, the interpretation of this song is that he is not only singing about the city, but he is also singing about Mia and the possibilities that are open for him. It’s a city for dreamers and he sings about chasing after dreams and romance at the top of his head. He is unsure of his future but it seems as though he is excited for what comes ahead.
Overall, out of all the musical sequences, the one that made the whole experience of watching La La Land unbelievably surreal is “Planetarium.” This is the moment where the movie blends fantasy and reality. Mia and Sebastian are taking a ride to the famous landmarks of Los Angeles. The Griffith Observatory is one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Forget the beautiful landscape of “A Lovely Night” where Mia and Sebastian are flirting with each other — this is the moment where their romance truly begins. When Sebastian lifts Mia into the air it symbolises their romance is headed right to the stars. The couple waltzes in the air, intoxicating themselves at the start of their romantic journey, full of sweetness and innocence that captures beautiful visual imagery. It is as if Mia and Sebastian are dancing through a shot in an old movie, lost in space and suspended in the air, continuing their dream and not wanting to come back to reality. In this world, they are lost in each other and enchanted by the sweetness of new love.
These sequences offer a new world and a new dream that was daring enough to portray love in a complicated situation. Whether Mia and Sebastian could have ended up together in the movie is speculative, but in my opinion, breaking them up is the best decision for the movie. The montage at the end of the final act is Mia and Sebastian’s “what is” version of their lives. While they moved to Paris and Mia’s dream of becoming an actress was fulfilled, Sebastian only performed at a jazz cafe — he never opened Seb’s in Los Angeles. Even if the montage showed their “happily ever after,” one of them didn’t get the chance to fulfil their dreams. This montage means to say that, even if it didn’t come true, is their way of saying, “At least they will have Los Angeles,” meaning their memories will stay with them.
Regardless of how it ended, La La Land has a classic Hollywood ending set in that world, and it is not meant to be perfect. Nothing is ever that simple, and sometimes happy endings can be bittersweet and all that is important is the romance and beauty that was left behind.
La La Land is a masterful craft made by Chazelle and Hurwitz. It is bathed in the lights of Los Angeles and the incandescent romance of Mia and Sebastian that captures many moments that melted my heart. I watched this movie over and over again and listened to the soundtrack with a more open mind. It is truly wonderful. The songs are constructed to flow and merge from one scene to another, capturing the magical, tinkering sounds or perhaps, feelings of the city of dreams. The dance sequences are energetic and wonderful, and there is not a moment where the characters are sitting still. The songs are lusciously divine to listen to and sometimes seductive — especially “A Lovely Night” during which Mia and Sebastian are teasing and flirting with each other, and even forcefully convincing themselves they are not a perfect match. I have heard this song so many times, and I will admit that this one is my favourite. It’s infectious and as they channel their emotions to one another, there is a chance for romance after all. La La Land was not a hallucination, it was a magical story about two lovers who were not meant for each other, but so what! What mattered to me, in the end, was how the film redeemed itself.