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La La Land: yesterday and today

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Since its release, La La Land has captured the hearts and minds of cinemagoers quite unlike any recent films and has even scored a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. And all this despite being a musical – a genre that has more or less been dead for years. But is its musical quality what makes La La Land a success? Musicals have  been popular among the masses, and La La Land represents the very best efforts of the genre.

The musical is steeped in a strong historical context. The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first real manifestation of the genre, and it grew in popularity between the late 1930s until the mid–60s. It so happened that the musical thrived when the world faced great peril: first, from World War II and thereafter, the Cold War. Films such as The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis provided people the opportunity to take refuge from the harsh political and military realities of the times. The function of La La Land is no different. In a world marred by war, inequality and division, there is no better medicine than La La Land to momentarily forget such ills. Simply, the musical is one of the best (and most healthy) forms of escapism.

It seems implicit then that La La Land is a product of the past, an incarnation of an almost forgotten genre.

Ryan gosling and emma stone in la la land

But ignoring how contemporary it is would be seeing only half the picture. It would be like watching The Godfather as a period film, not as an epic reinvention of the gangster genre. And that it what La La Land is: a contemporary reinvention of the musical. Its referential and original properties are finely balanced to remind us of the delights of the past and the fruitful opportunities of the present. It takes its note from New York, New York, another musical that seems to run parallel to the characterisation and thematic life of La La Land. While bearing a strong resemblance to it, La La Land never fails to differentiate and extend itself beyond the scope of Scorsese’s unfairly-maligned musical.

The film takes no time to evoke these two distinct time-periods. The opening sequence, which has been lauded for its choreography and technical prowess, is a clear example of how La La Land draws from the past. The song around which the sequence is framed – ‘Another Day of Sun’ – is magnificently executed by an array of LA denizens stuck in traffic. Their snap into song, from the bored disposition of anyone stuck in traffic, is stark and immediate. For a film of another genre, such abrupt non-naturalism would not be permitted. Combined with the large ensemble that all chip in with verse or two, ‘Another Day of Sun’ harkens back to the unique wonders of musical set pieces.

Intertwined with this sense of the past is an indelible imprint of the present. The melody and tune of ‘Another Day of Sun’ is identifiably modern. Its resemblance to any number of current pop and jazz songs is striking. Chazelle also provides us with visual cues indicating his intention to mesh modernity into the film: new, advanced cars line the highway, the city skyline is noticeably current, and the fashion of the characters discrepant from 50s fashion trends. The actual content of the lines – none more appropriate than ‘Another Day of Sun’ – is an implicit encouragement of seizing every moment.  

Certainly, Chazelle is forthright in imbuing the film with conscious retrospection. Indeed, the meeting and relationship of the two main characters, Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) is decidedly classical. Its dynamic isn’t much different from Anne (Audrey Hepburn) and Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) in Roman Holiday, or even Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton John) and Danny Zuko (John Travolta) in Grease.

Their first meeting, like many iconic duos, is a product of chance. Mia happens to stumble upon the neon-lit bar that Seb works at. Perturbed by her lack of professional headway in the acting business, the captivation she feels towards Seb’s piano-playing is welcomed. She is magnetised to it; providing her a brief moment of escape from her stagnant career. As she is drawn into the maroon-furnished bar, depicted in an unbroken take, there is something fortuitously romantic about it all.

Seb and Mia continue to meet at random; first at an ordinary party, then at a coffee shop. Both of them interact with an unmistakeable guardedness. Mia is sardonic, Seb self-assured, and they trade cushioned insults that indicate a tentative admiration for one another.

Needless to say, their relationship becomes more serious and both invest a lot of themselves in it. They experience what is so special about the meaning of spousal connection and unfettered romance. The heights of their relationship is best captured in a wonderfully fantastical scene, in which Mia and Seb enter a planetarium at dusk. It is empty, and we are readily fixed on the two of them together. Paralleled by an intoxicating orchestral score, both begin ascend into the air, floating.

La La Land is fixated on prodigious set pieces, and in eliciting overwhelming, stirring emotions. It is often these set pieces that give the film its emotional scope: ranging from elatedness, happiness, nostalgia, to regret, ambivalence and sadness. These fundamental human emotions are the main commodity of traditional musicals – alongside visual dazzlement and musical flourish.

At the same time, La La Land is very much anchored in a modern context. It deals with the uncertainty and turbulence of 21st century relationships, characterised by a challenging juggling act of career ambition and relational devotion. In a world that agency of the genders are rightly evening out, it is increasingly difficult to balance one’s personal and spousal responsibilities. That is what Seb and Mia find, and while the complications of their relationship are breaking for them and us, it represents a truthful strand of human nature.

Rather than default on the ending, Chazelle opts to go with a much more nuanced, intelligent conclusion to the La La Land journey. He banishes formulaic happiness for a hard-hitting serve of lament. It is tinged with ruefulness, and thus all the more powerful. The scene still remains stylistically consistent with the musical; but the content feels incredibly fresh. In the sea of emotion that inevitably rises from the surface, we are left to think of the importance of taking life’s chances. Especially those that are ample and only temporarily available to us.

La La Land is at its best when it coalesces the budding nostalgia of the past with the hopefulness of the present. It is a key reason why the film is so generous in its spiritual and aesthetic offerings.

- Nick Bugeja

La La Land screens until 14 Fabruary

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