La La Land opens with a dazzling musical number – expertly choreographed by the highly talented Mandy Moore – that introduces us to the L.A. of the title, our two protagonists (played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone), and perhaps most importantly, to the aesthetic of the film. Or, at least, the one which director Damian Chazelle will frequently drop in and out of. It’s a musical number that brings to mind the bold, brash and highly colourful Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, but Chazelle doesn’t just attempt to recreate a past form with the musical numbers in La La Land – there are a number of these sequences, and they are almost universally wonderful in every respect – but is instead interested in updating them, or at least using modern techniques to build upon films of the past.
In the next musical sequence, for instance, Chazelle stages a musical number set in Mia’s (Emma Stone) apartment, as she decides whether or not to go out to a party, encouraged by her perfectly colour-coordinated housemates. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren guide the camera with the women in gliding movements that capture their expressive and impressive dance moves, making excellent use of the various spaces and obstacles within the apartment. Within this sequence there are undoubtedly a number of concealed edits, moves between rooms conspicuously – if you are looking for it – happen across dark walls, for instance, but the effect is highly fluid and helps you drown in the action on screen, consumed by the flow of the movement.
This sequence and others throughout the film utilise techniques and equipment unavailable when MGM were dazzling the world with multicolour musicals – it would appear that there was some highly detailed work done in the DI stage on the colour grading too – but in 2016 a great many new tools are available. The film was shot on 35mm though, but on a modern 35mm camera and using lenses that first went into production long after the heyday of the Hollywood musical. The film is a hybrid, a ‘retro act’, something that appropriates the past but is also something new. And in doing so Chazelle has done an extraordinarily good job when it comes to the musical sequences. They are a marvel to watch – Gosling and Stone are also great physical performers and really know how to ‘go big’ when needed – in their fluidity and visual richness, and they are used in a way that tells the story through song and dance.
But La La Land is not just musical sequences, and as the film develops there are less of these moments, and the film becomes more about the relationship and the themes that Chazelle (who also wrote the screenplay) is exploring. One of these themes hangs heavily over the film, and is about a connection with the past, which works in unison with the way in which the film was made. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who is steeped in the past, the traditions of jazz and precious to the point of obsession about things not changing. At a crucial junction in the film he compromises himself, or at least that’s how it is portrayed, and gives up on tradition in order to pursue success. Except, rather than just show us Seb selling out, Chazelle seems to equate experimentation and moving beyond the traditional as selling out.
It’s also part of a somewhat confused and slightly odd view of jazz that Chazelle seems keen to push, as he did with Whiplash. At one point Seb tells Mia about the importance of jazz and how it allowed people from different cultures to talk to each other, and then proceeds to lecture her on improvisation, but in doing so suggests that improv in jazz is about competition and not collaboration. This runs counter to what he’s just said, and also puts forward a skewed view of the beautiful collaborative nature of improvisation. Seb’s arc throughout the film also travels towards a conclusion that paints an idea of a romanticised notion of the martyred male artist, in contrast to a very different view of a compromised female artist.
This is one of the film’s many examples of Chazelle attempting to ‘have his cake and eat it’. Here it’s about exploring the idea of being an artist; at other times it’s about how we engage with the past and nostalgia – the fact that Mia is an ‘old’ film obsessive who has never seen Rebel Without a Cause is no coincidence – and in the film’s climax he also tries to play with our emotions about Mia and Seb’s relationship, by feeding us huge mouthfuls of the cake and then pretending it’s all still on the plate. It’s a bold attempt, but one that, like in the aforementioned areas, doesn’t entirely succeed in a thematic, narrative or emotional way. La La Land is a beautiful film in parts, and whilst there is a lot to admire and enjoy about it – particularly in the first half – it crumbles away in far too many significant places as Chazelle stretches beyond the spectacle.