La La Land Review: A Visually Stunning Call Back to the Hollywood of Old

By Jack Mansfield

Today I went to see La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) for the second time, and it was just as wonderful as the first. I went with three friends – Georgia, Laura, and Harry – only one of whom had also seen it before, so I was interested to hear their opinions of it. The film tells the story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), a jazz musician and actress respectively, whose lives cross and ultimately come together in the setting of Los Angeles, California.

From the moment that the classic ‘Filmed in Cinemascope’ title card appeared, I knew that we were in for a nostalgic treat. Cinemascope was predominantly used from 1953 to 1967 for shooting widescreen films, including classics such as How To Marry A Millionaire (Jean Negulesco, 1953), The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957), and even Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske, 1955). It’s easy to see why director Damien Chazelle chose to use this format, as it provides the first of many harks back to some of these classic Hollywood films, but also allows for one of the most captivating opening scenes in recent film history.

The film opens with a musical number (aptly titled ‘Another Day of Sun’) that wholly sets the tone for the majority of the film: upbeat, hopeful, and magical. This song is one of very few in the film that does not include either Sebastian or Mia, and I feel that this is a smart move as it portrays the idea of the world in which they live as being perfect. Not only is this audibly achieved, but also visually: the entire scene is shot in one continuous (and very impressive) take, sweeping in and out of the rows of traffic, transferring the action from one passenger to another as the highway bursts energetically into life. The song ends with the titles in full across the screen, and at this point I felt the urge to applaud, but for a very brief instant I remembered I wasn’t in one of the cars on that highway in L.A. Certain moments in this film felt somewhat like the perfect advert for the city, though, as I often found myself admiring the beauty of the various locations; one in particular is the Griffith Observatory, which no doubt now finds itself on my bucket list of places to visit!

It’s Another Day of Sun! This is how you open a film.

The film never lets go of its identity as a call back to classical Hollywood cinema, with vibrant colour playing a large role in this identity. This is evident throughout the film, with characters’ clothes often comprising block colours that contrast with those of each other, and the beautiful sets around them. One of the great things about the film featuring an actress as a character is that the filmmakers can make use of a film studio as a setting; in one scene, Mia and Sebastian walk through the studio, passing stunning posters for upcoming films, actors and actresses in a plethora of fantastical costumes, and scenes for films being shot right in front of them.This scene perfectly encapsulates the bustle of the studio, and thus the world in which Mia dreams of being a part. However, the world of acting is not portrayed as entirely friendly; Mia’s various auditions throughout the film imply the highly competitive nature of the industry, demonstrated humourously in the early stages of the film where Mia goes to an audition where she finds herself amongst dozens of girls looking very much like her, all going up for the same part. It’s scenes like this in the film, with their dull colour palettes and unlikable supporting characters, that allow for the engrossing wonder of the story to really shine through in other parts of the film.

Sebastian, on the other hand, is a self-proclaimed “serious” jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club in the heart of Los Angeles. Where the use of colour supports Mia’s character and her dreams, the brilliant score written by Justin Hurwitz strongly defines Sebastian’s character; from the theme he plays in Lipton’s bar (look out for a terrific cameo from J.K. Simmons as the owner) to the beautiful ‘City of Stars’ and its many variations, Sebastian is characterised as a jazz musician with a passion for the nostalgic, for example keeping a stool that “Hoagy Carmichael sat on”, and not wanting the new owners of the Van Beek jazz club to “samba all over its history”. This is in no way a bad thing – quite the opposite, as we see in the film (without wanting to spoil anything!)

Ryan Gosling tinkling the ivories.

In fact, Justin Hurwitz’s entire score for La La Land wonderfully supports the visuals throughout the film. I was (and still am) a huge fan of his work on Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014), his last collaboration with Chazelle. In both films, jazz plays an integral part in the lives of one of the protagonists (in this case Sebastian), and Hurwitz’s score expertly balances a blend of old and new: from Thelonious Monk’s ‘Japanese Folk Song’, which we hear Sebastian avidly trying to imitate, to an original song, ‘Start A Fire’, written in collaboration with John Legend, who even has a short role in the film as Keith, a musician with a somewhat rocky past with Sebastian. There is a great scene where Sebastian is playing in the band at the Lighthouse jazz café, and Mia is dancing on the floor behind him; the cinematography here conveys the “conflict [and] compromise” that Sebastian believes defines jazz, with a continuous shot darting back and forth between the two. I recognised this shot, and realised that it was previously seen in Whiplash‘s final scene, alternating between drum fills by Andrew (Miles Teller) and conducting by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

The score has been rightfully recognised by various awards, most recently picking up two Academy Award nominations for Best Song (for ‘City of Stars’ and ‘The Fools Who Dream’) – again, staying spoiler-free, both songs are fantastic, but I was surprised that they both received nominations. Personally, I thought ‘The Fools Who Dream’ is not only a well-crafted love letter to all creative persons out there, but also worthy of the Best Song Oscar. Not only this, but it has also picked up an astonishing record 14 Academy Award nominations (the joint highest of all time and highest ever for a musical), and received seven Golden Globe awards – the first film to ever receive all of the Golden Globes for which it was nominated.

As I live in the UK, La La Land only released here in early January of 2017, so I’m going to class it as undoubtedly my favourite film of the year so far (and possibly even of all time), and it’s going to take a lot to knock it off the top spot. La La Land does a fantastic job of transporting its audience to the beautiful world it makes out of Los Angeles and the inner circles of music and film within it. I feel that the film does everything right, portraying the value of not giving up on your dreams, but also the importance of some dreams over others, as shown in the tear-jerking finale.

Here’s to the fools who dream.


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