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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Movement and Musicals in Gypsy’s ‘All I Need is the Girl’

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The musical is one of cinema’s great expressionist genres. Character and emotion aren’t portrayed just through narrative and dialogue in these films, but through song, dance, and colour. The genre’s about taking the figurative and making it literal, about showing Gene Kelly’s joy at saving The Duelling Cavalier by having him splash about in all those puddles. It is, in other words, a genre of movement: of the mouth, of the body, of the soul.

Conversely, this focus on movement can also exist in the absence of movement, as a number from Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 adaptation of Gypsy proves. Focusing on a shy young woman named Louise (played beautifully by Natalie Wood), the film follow her transformation from struggling vaudeville entertainer into burlesque sensation. Along the way, she falls out with her mother and sees her sister elope with Tulsa, a handsome young dancer who plays a part in the vaudeville act. Before then, however, he and Louise share a song and dance sequence, and it’s this that I want to concentrate on here.

‘All I Need Is The Girl’ is Tulsa’s big scene as he confides to Louise his plans to form his own act. He’s got everything planned out, he just needs a partner to join him.  He shows Louise some of the steps and, of course, she eventually starts dancing too. But what truly makes the moment work is everything Natalie Wood does (and does not do) before she starts dancing.

Watch Wood carefully during the first three quarters of this sequence. She’s sat down through most of it, not doing very much at all, but that’s the point. As Tulsa warms up, she sits almost motionless, her hands together and placed between her legs. She’s utterly insular, unable to even open out her body, never mind her heart and soul enough to dance the way Tulsa is.

But she wants to, and Wood tells us that through the smallness of her movement. Watch her tilt her head at the 1:05 mark, gently moving it as she falls under the spell of this song. She’s hanging on Tulsa’s every word, desperate to be the girl he needs, not necessarily because she wants to be his girlfriend, but because she wants the kind of confidence he has, she longs for the kind of love and excitement he’s talking about.

As Tulsa’s routine becomes more complex, the camera strays away from Wood, but you never forget she’s there (she is, after all, who Tulsa’s performing too) and you wish LeRoy would return to her more often, so magnetic is her quiet. Then finally, at 2:40, she moves, standing up as Tulsa imagines the girl of his dreams appearing. He talks of taking the girl’s hand and – crushingly – Louise, stood behind him, raises her hand, almost apologetically, in answer. She reaches out to him, moving her arm just a little bit, and tilts her head again, watching Tulsa intently.

The yearning in this small moment, in these invisible movements, is almost unbearable. He longs for a partner, she longs for a partner; he’s stood with his back to her, she can barely muster the confidence to reach out to him. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and it gets more crushing as Tulsa dances with his invisible partner while Louise, still behind him, sways gently along to the music. If only she could break out of her cage and fill in the role.

This being a musical number she eventually does, of course, and it’s a majestic, stirring moment of bravery and self-realisation. But it’s sold through the build-up: the slow, quiet yearning Wood shows us by not moving. The musical may be a great expressionist genre, but so often expression is about what we don’t say, as well as what we do. And by not singing, not dancing, not moving, Wood expresses with silence as much as the greatest of Hollywood’s musical stars do with their most elaborate routines.

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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Scene and Heard #2: Anna’s Frozen Jig

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In Kids Riding Bicycles’ regular series, Scene and Heard, I take a look at great moments in movie music. This feature isn’t just about the particular scene or the music underscoring it, but how the two come together to form a complete whole. In this edition, I run through one of the truly great moments in modern Disney history: Frozen and one of its signature songs.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I like musicals. That’s because musicals are great and if you’re uncool enough to think they’re not cool, I don’t care. As a hopeless romantic, I totally and shamelessly buy into their vision of love as something so wondrous you’ve simply got to break into song and do a little jig about it. Because honestly, why would you not want to do that if you’ve finally found the joy of romance?

The moment I want to focus on here is a very specific moment of Frozen‘s masterful song ‘For the First Time in Forever’. As I’ve explained before (erm, twice in fact), Frozen is a beautifully unique film that makes some important points about the nature of true love, refusing to dismiss the possibility that true love can exist, but at the same time warning against giving your heart away too easily because true love comes in different forms.

‘For the First Time in Forever’ is at the centre of that. Here we have two characters sharing a duet and communicating the same idea: that they’re both on the brink of experiencing human interaction for the first time in a long time. But the dramatic tension of the song comes from the fact that they have different readings of that experience: Elsa is utterly terrified, while Anna is utterly delighted. In many ways, if ‘Let It Go’ is Elsa’s song, ‘For the First Time in Forever’ is Anna’s.

We hear Anna’s jubilation first of all as she sings about how she could find her true love and how that will make her life perfect. Then we hear from Elsa, who sings of her terror at letting her guard down, being found out, and hurting people. It’s an incredible piece of music for the way it blends those two competing emotions, allowing the audience to understand the characters emotions while also showing how utterly wrong-headed they are in their approach to them.

Part of that is due to the direction. When the sequence is focusing on Anna, there’s a balletic quality to the camera movement. Like with all the truly great musical numbers, we aren’t just watching Anna dance; we’re dancing with her, swinging and sashaying our way through Arendelle like gravity’s something only other people need to worry about. By comparison, Elsa’s scenes are shot with a slow, deliberate pace and steady camera movements, our viewpoint remaining rooted and still, just as Elsa is.

The style creates a sense of desire within the audience. We want these characters to feel happy: we want Anna to find her true love and we want Elsa to be as free as her sister is. And towards the end of the sequence we get a taste of that, as Anna bounds out of the castle, jumping on walls and swinging around poles, before finally, the moment that always delights me happens: Anna dances a jig.

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It’s a small moment, no more than a few seconds long, but it’s important because it captures Anna’s character perfectly. We’re so used to musical numbers being carefully choreographed with little to no room for improvisation, certainly no room for someone to do a little, daft jig. But that’s exactly what Anna does here. She’s walking along, hikes up her skirt a little, and starts jigging along.

It’s the moment in the film where I knew two things: that I was going to love Anna and that I was going to love the film. Because here, we have someone so utterly in love with the idea of being in love, so utterly transcedentally happy at the opportunities she now has in front of her, that she simply can’t contain it. She’s dancing. And when I say that, I don’t mean Dancing Dancing. I mean actually, really dancing. Big, embarrassing, I can’t contain it dancing.

I think about this scene when I feel down. I think about how it made me smile when I first saw Frozen while struggling with anxiety in 2013. I think about how it still makes me smile, even when I linger on the fact that I’m 32 and still, thanks to shyness, haven’t ever had a girlfriend. I think about it because I, to some degree, am Anna: searching for that one wonderful thing that will make me dance a jig. Maybe we all are. And maybe that’s why this moment is so beautifully powerful.