Notice: There are NO plot spoilers. I do mention some detail about the movie but nothing that would ruin the story itself.
The holidays are over, the days are getting longer and the super bowl has come and gone. Everyone is waiting in bated breath for the next big thing and that can only mean one thing, Oscar season. The nominations by now are out and the films are playing and re-playing in theaters all across the United States. It came as no real shock that along with stunning films like Arrival and Manchester By the Sea, that La La Land was one of the films nominated for best picture.
I dragged my parents and brother to the movie theater the other night to see La La Land, again. I know I know, it’s no surprise that a female in her early 20’s is gushing about this movie, but stay with me here. It was my second time watching it and it was just as incredible (to me) the second time as it was the first. In the words of my cousin Katie “everything felt like it was done exactly on purpose, everything in this movie has a very specific reason for being there,” and I couldn’t agree more. I wanted my family to see this movie mainly because of the cinematic quality even more than the story, which rarely happens. But as a filmmaker, I’ve only gone as far as I’ve come in my career because of how much my family has supported me, and with that comes the joy of them learning about filmmaking right along with me. So naturally when I had a million movie making thoughts I had to make them watch it so we could talk about it.
La La Land is chock full of movie magic, and it has a kind of feel to it that makes it an instant classic. Now when I think of a classic musical, I often think of shows that originated on the stage and then were transformed into a movie. After some research I found that there are a surprising amount of “classic musicals” that actually did the opposite and were originally a movie and then went to Broadway. This film made me think of both Hollywood and Broadway equally, and I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see it on Broadway someday (please!!). According to Wikipedia: “a ‘classic’ is an outstanding example of a particular style; something of lasting worth or with a timeless quality; of the first or highest quality, class, or rank – something that exemplifies its class.” This definition explains La La Land to me perfectly. You watch it and think that it’s always been a story that’s existed. It wasn’t made in 2016, it’s always been here, right? The classic look of the dresses with the solid bright colors, the saddle shoes, the jazz, the dancing, the scenery, the posters on the walls all make you feel like you’re in another time period. But the smartphones and Square registers and the many many Prius’ helps you remember that we’re still in the 21st century. It’s a beautiful blend of “then and now”. Not to mention all of the classic musical references scattered everywhere possible.
The opening scene alone was worth watching the whole movie for. Everyone is singing and dancing on a highway in LA and it’s one continuous shot. One. Shot. The camera never cuts, there are no tricks other than what is seen. There are even people riding bicycles and doing tricks on skateboards at some points. They had to perform the entire number flawlessly, just like a stage performance. As everyone else was watching the scene, I was imagining the cinematographers, because not only did the actors have to be on point but so did the cinematographers. I was imagining how at least one, maybe two people were helping the camera operator(s?) so he doesn’t run into cars or people and signals for when and where the camera should turn, etc. etc. And the rest of the movie was the same way!
Each scene consisted of at least one incredibly long shot. It reminded me of how you see each individual scene on a theater stage. Each cut was like how the curtain closes or the lights go black on stage and then it’s on to the next scene. With that being said, when there were quick cuts I noticed and felt very uncomfortable because it messed with the pacing of the movie. I noticed this when Seb (Ryan Gosling) was talking to an “old friend” but the encounter was clearly awkward and full of tension. At first I thought, “wow, why does this scene suddenly feel different? It’s more than just the acting,” and I realized it was the quick cuts between the two characters that tipped me off. Filmmakers make decisions like that all the time to make viewers subconsciously feel like something is wrong even if they don’t understand why or notice the tricks, and this was one of those tricks. I appreciate how this movie uses both theater tricks and film tricks to it’s advantage. A theater trick in this film I noticed was in the lighting. In film you don’t typically have noticeable light changes or see the fixtures but on stage you do. In multiple scenes we see the lights dim low until all you see is what they want you to see, and you are drawn in and captivated until they pop you right back into reality by bringing the lights back up.
Of course I couldn’t mention the cinematic style of this movie without mentioning the sound. I admire the boldness they had with using sound from the jazz music the the car horn to even the annoying fire alarm. But even more incredible to me was the use of absence of sound. There are points where it goes from loud music to absolute silence in an instant to the point where your ears ring from the contrast and you’re afraid to eat your popcorn for fear that the whole theater will hear it. These are the kinds of things that pull you in, these are the kinds of things that make you feel like you’re living in their world for two hours even though it is clearly a romanticized version of real life. After writing the first draft of this post, an article was shown to me that talks about La La Land’s Female sound team! Is it a coincidence that the sound use in this movie resonated with me? Maybe, but maybe not. I think it’s another link to the puzzle showing why it is so important for women to be involved in movie magic just as much as men are.
Okay yes, so this film was clearly Oscar bait. If the 14 nominations and classic Hollywood feel of it didn’t already give that away. I honestly wasn’t going to go see it originally simply because I knew it was just Oscar bait. But I’m glad I did and here is why. The film is about jazz, the film is about acting, but even bigger than that, the film is about what could happen if you dared to follow your dreams, and what could happen if you dared not to. As a young female filmmaker, I haven’t exactly chosen the easiest career path. I’m a storyteller at the core, but to be a filmmaker you have to be technical, you have to be a problem solver and you have to be confident and go for it full throttle or not at all. Not all of this comes naturally and certainly not easily, which can be said for many other forms of art. Trying to “make it” as an artist of any kind is difficult to say the least, and that’s what this movie is all about. This movie helps me remember that I am not alone. Life is difficult, but in the end what matters is that you pursue what you are passionate about and you love who you love as much as you can. Because as Emma Stone’s character says, “People love what other people are passionate about.” So this is my shout out to you, you are not alone.