La La Land: Discussion

If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review of the film, please check it out over here. I wrote it all the way back in September, fresh from seeing it at TIFF, and I’ve been waiting all this bloody time just to talk about what for me is the best film of the year. I was absolutely giddy for this movie, how it made me feel, how it made me think, how it whisked me away into something both surreal and familiar. We exited the theatre from La La Land and rushed on to the next (I think it must have been Lion) but between the two, I wept. I wept for heartbreak, and for beauty, because La La Land abounds in both.

If you’ve kept reading, then you know by now that La La Land, for all of its romance, does not have a traditionally happy ending. But are the characters unhappy? Mia and Seb separate in part because their ambitions overshadow their love. Was this the right move? Do they have regrets? Certainly they’ve both gone on to achieve the success they so coveted. Mia is married, la-la-land-1with children. When she sits in Seb’s club at the end, we are treated to an alternate version of events in which they manage to stay together. Do they wish that this was so? Do they still love each other? Have they moved on?

One of Chazelle’s unspoken themes must be “Is it worth it?” – is it?

During their courtship, the movie takes cliches about love and makes them true: love lifts them, they dance on air, they sing from rooftops. Did this feel organic to you in the movie? I often felt that when things felt intense to them, they broke out into song as a metaphor for feelings that are too fervent to verbalize. When words fail, they’d sing, or dance, which is often the way we feel in our excited little hearts when we’re first falling in love (reminds me of a certain scene in 500 Day of Summer).

Sean noticed that when the relationship got rocky, the movie got a little more boring, and frankly, a little repetitive. The songs are reused. But in time he felt like that was sort of the point: that the newness and wonder of the relationship had worn off, that they were beyond the first crush and settling into patterns and habits and less passion. The film itself reflects it. Did you find new meaning in songs as they were revisited? During the second half of the film, during the relationship’s demise, there is noticeably less music, which means less joy, less intensity. Their world goes a little drab when the shine has worn off. Did you miss the music when it was gone? Certainly when it returns in that final scene, it’s a heart breaker.

Originally Chazelle imagined that Miles Teller and Emma Watson would fullfill the lead roles. I can’t picture Teller ever being right for the part. Watson left the project so she could do another musical, Beauty and the Beast. Ryan Gosling ended up turning down the opportunity to play the Beast so he could do this instead, with frequent collaborator, Emma Stone. Chazelle has stated they were hired together intentionally, because they’re a modern-day version of an old-Hollywood couple, frequently working together and already having an established chemistry. Do you think anyone else could have pulled off these roles? Do you think either of them has a legit chance at an Oscar?

Seb states that jazz has to be experienced. He’s disgusted by people who use it as ‘background music.’ It’s a special language that he teaches her and she comes to appreciate. He takes full advantage in the final scene, telling her he still loves her using only his music, and he plays so passionately that she can see how he wishes things had been different. However, there’s an interesting part in the movie, the “sellout” phase where Seb is playing jazz in the background during a scene. Is this where it all went downhill? What would you say was their final straw?

Chazelle has deliberately taken this musical off the backlots and grounded in modern-day Los Angeles. The opening number, though originally not my favourite, helps set the tone. This is the world in which they live, but both are outsiders among that set. At the end of the number, Gosling gives Stone the finger before driving off. The offramp used in this number is the same one they used in Speed, where they had to jump the gap. Lots of real locations were used in the film – even Seb’s apartment is an actual apartment, not a set. Let’s not forget that the movie isn’t called Mia or Seb, it’s called La La Land: the city is also a character. City of stars, city of dreams. Did the locations help give the movie a sense of reality to you?

The one criticism I’ve heard from this movie is that it never addresses the true roots of jazz: does La La Land “whitesplain” jazz? Is it racist in its portrayal? Did Damien Chazelle fail us by casting white actors in a movie about jazz? Then I wondered – wouldn’t Whiplash have faced the same controversy? It’s another movie about jazz starring two white dudes, but I don’t recall

hearing any hooplah over it [turns out the criticism was there all along]. Of course it’s not for me to say, but I can understand how it might sting a little to have an art form that was “invented” by African-Americans, music by black people for black people, to be told by white people. Not to say that jazz belongs to any one people, but if these are the only stories being told about jazz, then maybe the stories belong to the people who truly wrote them. And it does feel regressive in 2016 to see a white man play jazz, and a white woman dance to it, while people of colour make up the blurry background characters surrounding them, out of focus, besides the point. What do you think – is there cultural misappropriation going on here? Is Ryan Gosling a “white man saviour” in his quest to save jazz?

Mia and her friends are resplendent in primary colours because they’re young, and they dream in technicolour. She’s dressed in emerald, saphire, yellow. At the end of the movie though, she’s wearing white. She’s supposedly made her dreams come true, but she’s leached of colour. What’s that about?

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21 thoughts on “La La Land: Discussion

  1. Jeroen Admiraal

    The final straw I think was the fight they had over dinner. When Mia missed him and then he tells her that going on tour was what his work was going to be. But I kind of feel that it was only Mia who broke things up, and that Seb was trying his best and didn’t want to break up. I wonder if the breakup was really inevitable.

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  3. Lorna Cunningham-Rushton

    I just saw this movie two days ago, and I’m still wrapped in its wonder. Frankly, I don’t want to answer any of those questions or go down any of those roads. I want, for as long as it lasts, for me to continue loving those people, hurting when they hurt, hoping when they saw alternative possibilities and thinking that one day they’ll re-find what they lost and make it work somehow with her children.

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  4. Birgit

    I still have to see this film but nothing is spoiled for me. As for the political correctness…ughhh ya know, if people pick apart every friggen movie, there would be no movies made. I say get over it everyone and enjoy the film and the music. Fred Astaire danced often to jazz as he loved it…should we balk…no! Enjoy it for heavens sake. Ok…as you can tell I am so no into political correctness. If she is wearing white…white often means purity. Maybe the love she had with the Ryan character gave her the ability to find the true love in its purest form? I am looking forward to seeing this film

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    1. Jeff the Chef

      I totally agree. Everything that was said about jazz could be said about rock and roll. It’s not as though history and culture aren’t important, what does every musical have to address the history of its genre?

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  5. girlwiththepopcorn

    I absolutely loved this movie and the points you are bringing up here are very interesting! For me, I definitely think that the pivotal moment that ruined their relationship was Seb agreeing to join The Messengers – essentially ‘selling out’ and making it impossible for the two to maintain the bond they had formed based on their shared status as struggling dreamers. However, Seb would never have made enough money to open the jazz club otherwise, so I think they had to sacrifice eachother to pursue their careers and avoid the inevitable resentment that would have occurred had they held eachother back. Such a brilliant movie!

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  6. ridicuryder

    Jay,

    I just saw the La La Land last night with a friend…she was blown away by the opening single tracking shot. I’m interested in watching it a few more times…it’s that kind of movie. The undertone of grittiness permeates the story, they are both in constant struggle…the dancing and even the songs were ever-so-slightly-strained because two young white actors were perfectly surreal in these parts. The numbers were really well done, but slightly off somehow which always happens to a certain degree with classic to contemporary stuff. I got the sense that the story was designed to operate at cross layers…go places it wasn’t supposed to go…it’s what makes it magical.

    As far as the romance goes, I wasn’t all that upset by the way things turned out. They both got swept up in each other as a catalyst for their aspiring creative pursuits…it’s what makes young love a rocket you can only ride for so long.

    RR

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  8. Jeff the Chef

    I love Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. I went to see the movie in part because of those two actors. Still, at the same time, I wished they had cast singers who can act instead of actors who can sing. I loved the opening sequence – and I especially loved how many of the scenes were shot with long takes. However, I was disappointed that there weren’t more large numbers in the movie. I was also disappointed that there weren’t larger singing roles for supporting cast members.

    I don’t know how you can mention this movie without commenting on Ryan Gosling’s amazing fake piano playing skills!

    The movie makes use of only a few songs that are riffed on as the movie goes along. However they’re really good songs.

    It was was a throwback to the musicals of the thirties and forties, and for that reason it was one of my favorite movies of this past year. I hope Hollywood makes more movies like this. However, it will never be my favorite musical.

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  10. Lloyd Marken

    I don’t know Jay about the last paragraph, I think I’m getting old and conservative as time marches on. Jazz belongs to African Americans. That should remain true and known to the end of time but I was very happy to see Gosling and Stone in this film. Michael B. Jordan and Zoe Saldana couldn’t done it but I’m fine with Gosling being a passionate white jazz musician and maybe that apathy is why things change slow. Maybe I’m the problem or maybe I just accept there are white jazz musicians out there. The “unhappy” ending surprised me and I kind of rebelled against it but like all such endings it has a power that stays long after the credits. I took it very much as an example of why those old saloon singers sing those sad love songs so well. Because they’ve all got a story or two that goes just like the song and this was his story. I’ve had a few discussions though about how it could be happy ending because they get professionally what they want. I’ve seen too many people speak about relationships taking precedence once they get to the end of middle age and realise the futility of professional success to think that the film has a happy ending. But how we measure a successful life is truly for ourselves to decide and so it is with these characters too. The insights that you and Sean have mentioned about the pacing and mise-en-scene of the film reflecting relationships I think rings true and I thank you very much for sharing them. Has allowed me to take a deeper look at it.

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  11. INTWTA

    You ask some thought provoking questions here. I’ll answer a couple as I need to think about the others more. I’ve just been writing about my experience watching too. Overall I didn’t feel it (though I need another look considering its awards season momentum and it has made me ponder).

    I really felt it built well from the 3rd season onward. The last season particularly was affecting with the fantastical -what if – sequence. I was honestly really bored in a lot of the first two seasons. Some clever parts though underwhelmed. I’m an avid film junkie, and awards season follower, so I suppose I’m a hard man to please. When something works it works. Particularly with stylized works such as this. There was something amiss about his one. Perhaps it’s the organic thing you are getting at about the cliche love moments and moving from speech to song?
    That’s basically what musicals are meant to do. When there’s no where else to go, you sing. This worked in parts. Say Emma Stone’s audition piece (so good). This felt organic. Anyway, I’ll have a think about the rest.

    Stone has a realistic chance come Oscars time. She actually grew into the role as it progressed. Perhaps that was the point? She’ll be nominated for sure. I’m thinking Natalie Portman will win. I haven’t seen Jackie yet but my jaw was open the whole trailer.
    Best actor is harder. Ryan Gosling could get a nomination though wouldn’t be shocked if he doesn’t. His role and performance didn’t do it so much for me. He’s a fine actor and did better with the dancing than Emma. It’s a quieter role. This may transcend or not.

    Regarding who else could’ve done the roles?

    It’s tough. I think they were cast well. The roles require a youthful quirky freshness.

    Hmmm…

    Michael B. Jordan with Alicia Vikander would be cool. Yes! I could really see that.

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  12. fifi + hop

    Loved La La Land – I just saw it last weekend and left in tears. So many great questions you’ve raised..to me, the beginning of the end seemed to appear during the “sell out” phase. Though ultimately, as much as it’s about ambition overshadowing love, it’s also about timing. Had they met a few years later..in any case now that I’ve seen the movie I can’t imagine anyone else in it. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone nailed it. The first 10 minutes I thought I was going hate the film and then I fell in love with it. Reality vs. non-reality being conveyed through music, dreams, ambitions and yes – La La Land was the third character. What a brilliant little film.

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  18. singana1

    Great movie! I think if anything, John Legend is portrayed as the “savior of jazz” in the movie. Granted, he had a more minor role, but his character was of more cultural significance. Anyways, nice post! Stay tuned for our jazz feature coming out tomorrow! It’s focused on a brilliant contemporary musician.

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