Conflict and Compromise in La La Land

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Spoilers for La La Land. Don’t read this piece until you’ve seen the film.

The cinematic musical is a medium of grand emotions and even grander visuals. Everything is heightened. Colours are brighter, sets are larger, emotions are wild, untamed, and only suitably expressed through spontaneous song and dance. La La Land, Hollywood’s latest attempt to revive the genre,  is no different. The film ends with a glorious, bittersweet sweep through unreality, and when our two lovers fall for each other, they do so while floating on air at Griffiths Observatory.

Yet the film has an organic feel that many classic Hollywood musicals don’t. While the cinematography adds a dreamy sheen to almost every scene, director Damien Chazelle shoots in real locations, lending the film a compelling tension between reality and fantasy. This tension is echoed by the script, which uses the improvisational nature of jazz as a metaphor for life and love. “It’s conflict, it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting,” Ryan Gosling’s frustrated jazz musician Seb tells aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone).

As these characters progress through the film they too have to battle conflict and compromise. They love each other, but they also have very firm dreams that take them in different directions, sometimes coming into conflict with their principles, sometimes having to compromise their lives together. Mia refuses to join Seb on tour after he joins a successful band; Seb is so busy with the band that he misses Mia’s one-woman show. They eventually split, form separate lives, and in a heartbreaking finale meet each other again five years in the future, Chazelle taking us through a gloriously artificial vision of what their life could have been together.

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Such sequences are common in traditional Hollywood musicals. Gene Kelly had a particular fondness, using them to dramatise a Dancing Cavalier sequence in Singin’ in the Rain and a dream sequence in An American in Paris. They’re both moments of artifice, with the false sets heightening this sense of constructed reality. La La Land‘s artifice in this epilogue sequence does the same; this isn’t a dream sequence, but it is a vision of what could have been. Seb and Mia’s life together has slipped from sight, and all they have now is an illusion of their love.

What adds extra resonance to the sequence though is how the banality of what we see clashes with the way it’s being seen. The visuals may be artificial and exuberant, but the story is one of tough, everyday choices being made in a slightly different way than they did in the story we’ve just watched. Seb never joins the band, he goes with Mia when she gets her acting gig in Paris, they get married, and have a child together. The compromises they could only make for their dreams, they now make for each other and so they end up together.

Few of us will ever have to decide whether to join a band or take an acting job in Paris, but we make similar decisions all the time. Do we take that job that means a two hour commute and less time with the family? Do we stay true for our dreams regardless of the security they do or don’t offer? Do we chase love or a career? By juxtaposing such everyday choices against such exotic visuals, La La Land succeeds in creating a profound melancholy. These decisions, the film says, may seem pedestrian, but ultimately they have grand consequences, deciding who we are, what we become, and whether or not we end up dancing in thin air with the love of our life.

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Singin’ and dancin’ in the rain…

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“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Nietzsche. It wasn’t all nihilism, the death of God, and staring into the abyss; dude also liked dancing. And hey, if it’s good enough for Nietzsche, why’s it not good enough for you?!

Curiously metaphysical introduction over (I knew I’d put that Philosophy A Level to good use some day), I’ve fallen under the spell of the cinematic musical yet again. Those who’ve been following this blog from the start will know that I’m rather fond of a good musical, and with La La Land almost in cinemas, I’ve decided to cosy up to the warm embrace of random singing and dancing for the next month or so. Because it’s cold outside, 2016 sucks, and, well, look. Look at La La Land. LOOK AT IT!

Why are musicals so darn good, I hear you ask? Well, I reply, I love expressionist forms of film-making that bring emotion out into literal truth. It’s why animation means so much to me: it’s all about using its non-real potential to heighten the emotions of the characters and turn them into something big and bold and beautiful. The best superhero films do the same, as do the best sci-fi and fantasy films. Emotions can’t always be captured by literal truth; they need the hyper-realism of film to truly hit home.

Musicals take that rule to the next level: they literally make a song and dance about emotions. If the character is sad, they’ll sing a soppy ballad; if the character is happy, they’ll get up off their feet and perform an incredible dance routine. People scoff at such things (pfft, why can no-one else hear this music? How can everyone suddenly know exactly the same dance routine?), but that’s because they’re soulless husks who’ve been damaged by life and probably spend their lives noting continuity errors on IMDB. People sing and dance in musicals because it’s the purest form of expression, and that’s what musicals are about: the various ways we express ourselves.

They’re also, of course, about love, and as I’ve mentioned before, hopeless romance is one of my favourite things. As pathetic as it is to believe, I truly do reckon that there’s someone out there for everyone, that someday you’ll find that person and – metaphorically rather than literally because, well, you’d probably seem a bit weird if you literally did it – they’ll make you sing and dance and you’ll make them do the same. It’s just one of those things I refuse to buckle on – no matter how difficult it sometimes gets – and musicals are a great way to bolster that faith. They’re so damn sincere. They just believe and they make me believe too.

So I’m going full musical. Across the next few weeks, I’m going to indulge in some of my favourites, and a few I’ve never seen before, and probably write a bit of nonsense about them here. Then I’ll go and see La La Land when it’s released in the UK in January and hopefully fall in love with that. Because, well, look at it. How can you not fall in love with it? LOOK AT IT. JUST… LOOOOOOOOK!

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