Considering that its been over a week since I experienced the magic of La La Land – for thoughts on that, check out my review – and yet the film is refusing to leave my mind alone. There’s hidden depths of meaning and ideas in the film that I can’t help but obsess over and unpack, and I intend to do so in this new form of article which for now I’m titling ‘examinations’. Now, lets discover what dreams are made of by deep diving into my inner monologue ramblings about La La Land.
Why La La Land?
The best place to start is where the title of the film itself comes from. This in question is Los Angeles or LA (what a shocker) where most of the film takes place. Often described as ‘the land of dreams’ or ‘tinsel-town’, Los Angeles is basically the heart of Hollywood film-making, a place where prospective movie-makers and actors flock in order to get their big break. This allure is captured pretty comfortably during the opening moments of the film by the backed up cars leading into the city as ‘Another Day of Sun’ is belted out by a slew of hopefuls amidst the traffic. If this is an obvious enough metaphor, the lyrics literally spell it out:
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene
Without a nickel to my name
Hopped a bus, here I came
Could be brave or just insane
We’ll have to see
The story literally starts with hundreds pouring into the ‘land of dreams’ to become movie stars and famous directors, completely enraptured by ‘all the lights that shine’. However, the title La La Land then takes on a different connotation – rather than being a ‘land of dreams’, being in ‘la la land’ is defined as being ‘out of touch with reality’. The title automatically suggests that this ‘land of dreams’ is a bit too detached from reality, in the same way an entire highway bursting into perfectly pitched song doesn’t really happen in the real world.
Subsequently, the movie seems to suggest these hopefuls are disillusioned and are ultimately too enraptured by dreams of stardom that they can’t see the inevitable disappointment staring them in the face.
Now, the interesting contrast with the disillusionment of LA is how goddamn nostalgic the movie is for classical Hollywood. Chazelle and composer Hurwitz have discussed how they approached the musical numbers like the MGM musicals of old, focusing on single take performances, singing live, and even going so far as to record in the exact same studio as Singin’ in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz. The entire style of the film is built on these traditional building blocks and even references plenty of classic films either through direct mention (Casablanca), alluding to shots from the film (Singin’ in the Rain, Sweet Charity, Funny Face) or even through a sole costume (An American in Paris). However, the interesting thing is how self-aware it is of that. At one point when discussing her play with Sebastian, Mia queries “do you think its too nostalgic?” almost as a meta-question to the audience regarding how nostalgic much of La La Land is. However, its this nostalgic play that, while not a success, is what leads to her achieving her dream of landing a major acting role. This approach to idolising Hollywood is in direct contrast with the disillusionment of Los Angeles and for me personally is what makes La La Land so damn fascinating.
Does Mia actually succeed?
Speaking of Mia previously, she basically acts as the embodiment of every struggling actor/actress in Hollywood trying to make it big. Just like everyone else, she’s stuck on that bridge rehearsing for an audition and waiting for the traffic to break. However, unlike so many others whose dreams are shattered by LA, Mia ends the film by hitting the big time. Cut forward five years and she’s recognised in cafes, her face is plastered across billboards and she’s got a loving husband and daughter. On face value she has everything she wanted.
But then comes the kicker. Wandering into a random bar, she stumbles across her lost lover Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and the two share a fore-long glance and imagine the life they could have had together. First off, all the points to Damien Chazelle for making a wholly unexpected and unconventional ending. Seriously, it was such a pleasant surprise to not suffer through the typical Hollywood romance of admitting their undying love and running away together. Now secondly, this tinges everything Mia has achieved with a bittersweet sadness. The glance between the two is reminiscent of another classic film that was also previously mentioned in the film, Casablanca, as Rick looks across the bar to see his lost lover Ilsa.
‘In all the gin joints in all the towns, she walks into mine’.
But that begs the question – why end the film this way? It doesn’t seem to support the nostalgic aspect nor improve upon the disillusionment of LA. Did Chazelle just want to piss off everyone who wanted Stonling to be a thing? I struggled with this question for several days and while I don’t think I have a complete definitive answer, I believe it ties into the internal conflict within the film itself between its homage to the old and yearning for the new.
The Past and Future Collide
As I said in my review, La La Land is a film torn between two time periods – the classic musicals of the 50s and 60s, and contemporary film-making standards. Far from unintentional, I think this is key to understanding what Chazelle is trying to convey. In addition to musicals is the influence of jazz that is perpetuated through the film by Sebastian’s (and by proxy, Chazelle’s) infatuation with the genre. My personal interpretation of this influence is that Chazelle uses jazz, or more accurately Sebastian’s struggle with jazz, as a placebo for the conflict between the two eras in the movie. Its as Keith (John Legend) says to him:
“How are you gonna be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future”.
In my interpretation, this is basically the mantra of the movie. Like Sebastian himself, the film is enraptured by the past, looking back when it should be looking forward, and the ending reflects this conflict. While what Mia and Sebastian had was special, but as the dream flashback shows, its far from what they imagined. They had become nostalgic for something that was always flawed, and like Bogart at the end of Casablanca its better to walk into the mist of an uncertain future than be trapped in the Nazi-occupied past. Bit dramatic, but you get the point.
And this explains the conflict between the self-aware nostalgia for the past and disillusionment of Los Angeles. The film itself is like Sebastian – he’s aware that he’s enraptured with the past, Mia, but pushes forward to become a “revolutionary” because he’s finally aware the LA dream is over. The stars have disappeared. That night they shared overlooking the ‘city of dreams’ is done and as the sun comes up he can start a new day.
This is what I think is so brilliant about La La Land. It pays tribute to the past but is more interested in the future. Its nostalgic, but knows it. What I think Chazelle is trying to say is that the past is done. It was special, but now its over and we need to wake up and face the present. The film may end on a down note, but through all the whimsical imaginings of what could have been and the longing looks across the room I struggle not to feel a small glimmer of hope for what’s to come. For all the problems of the modern world, we have come such a long way and while the future may be as uncertain as a foggy runway, its always better to push forward than stay behind.
And that message is why La La Land deserves every award under the stars.
Anyway, these are just my current rather poorly organised thoughts on comfortably my favourite film of 2016. Who knows, I may look back on this in a week and think I was completely off. Feel free to let me know your own personal takeaway from the film in the comments below, and keep dreaming – just remember to wake up.