The year is coming to an end, and with it, the last great films of 2016 must be tabulated. The beginning of the year saw the release of the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, hearkening back to the golden age of Hollywood. Now in December, there is a new nostalgic film and it is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The film is the modern-day successor of Singin’ in the Rain. It is a musical in the classical Hollywood fashion featuring eye-popping blue, red, green and yellow wardrobes, tap-dancing and show-stopping musical numbers. It is all filmed in glorious Cinemascope. La La Land centers itself around the romance of Sebastian and Mia, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, respectively. Sebastian is an old soul, in love with the jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He plays holiday jingles on piano in a restaurant but he dreams of playing the improvisational and innovative music he loves. Mia’s story is that of a girl who moved to Hollywood to become an actress and years later is still waiting for her big break. She is enamored with classic Hollywood movies like Casablanca.
A romance develops between the two in a sweet and unassuming fashion. Mia flirts by requesting a song from the band in which Sebastian is playing. Stone utilizes the quirky charm she had in Easy A, singing along to the song and miming reactions to the words. Later on in a movie theater, romantic tension is built not for a kiss, but for two hands to hold. Fingers inch toward one another and when they begin to entwine, it is a powerful and intimate connection.
Linus Sandgren is the cinematographer and he brings a beauty and grace to the camera’s movements. Shots tend to be long in duration and instead of cutting, the camera weaves in and out, gliding, dancing and beautifully capturing the musical numbers. The camera uses an anamorphic lens—the Cinemascope of the 1950s and ‘60s—which makes the center of the shot seem bigger but curves and stretches out the edges of the image. The use of the old-style lens helps in the visual expression of the film’s nostalgia.
At a movie theater showing old films, Mia and Sebastian watch Rebel Without a Cause featuring James Dean. Later, an identical shot to one from the Dean movie appears. The film utilizes repeated imagery like this for comparison or contrast. A shot of a house at night transitions to the same shot in the day. Mia and Sebastian look at the California landscape from the same spot during the day and night and compare it as such. The visual language in the film is carefully structured and maintained. Recurring in the film as well is the musical motif of the song “City of Stars.” The song returns throughout the film with different meanings. It is a duet for a mutual expression of love. It is a haunting whistle, wistfully blown by Sebastian, alone on a boardwalk. Musical themes of their romance recur, underlying moments throughout the film.
At the very end, a single piano performance packs an emotional wallop, utilizing visuals to represent the visceral expressive power of music. La La Land owes much to Casablanca, for the classic film’s place in the former’s cinematic iconography, as well as for some of its plot. Ingrid Bergman’s face appears in posters around Los Angeles and the recurring themes feel like the updated “As Time Goes By.” Like Rick and Ilsa being pulled in different directions by their responsibilities and convictions, Mia’s acting and Sebastian’s music career come to odds.
There is emotional depth in the film purely dependent on its intertextuality and on the connection it has to classic Hollywood. As the film plays out through wistful nostalgia, there is also a modernity to it. Cell phones exist and the iconic iPhone marimba ringtone is significant in its own way in the film. Sebastian, meanwhile, is struggling with the modern era’s attitude toward jazz. He repeatedly bemoans the closing of a classic jazz club and is tempted into abandoning his convictions for success and popularity in contemporary music. While Sebastian deals with this, Mia struggles with her dreams and the reality of being able to follow them. She goes to casting calls and the subtle visual gag of identical actors auditioning arises. She feels like the others are better-looking and more talented than her.
Mia’s confidence gets no help from the constant rejection and less-than-kind treatment afforded her by casting agents. In the end, the film is emotional, magical, special and sweet. The chemistry between Stone and Gosling is palpable. The music is original and wonderful. In a fantastical moment, Stone and Gosling dance in a planetarium, suspended and twirling among the stars. The throwback nature of the film inherently grants it more depth by tapping into the emotional wealth contained in Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain, as well as in Top Hat and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
La La Land is an instant classic and truly a wonderful piece of art. It stands out cinematically, musically and visually. It has received well-deserved acclaim and should do well in Oscar season. The camera is kinetic and stylistically interesting. The characters are dreamers to rally behind. The music is a gem of the past brought back into the present day. With the conclusion of 2016, La La Land is a great way to end the year.