Do you ever get the feeling that something left you completely satiated, you got everything you asked for, and then some, but there’s a “kick” at the end of it? No, not rum or any kind of chocolate liqueur. I’m talking about that sensation when you feel that the experience was incredible, absolutely worth it, but it leaves that bit of melancholy that claws away at you. Rather briefly, and in signature style as I have ruined the ending, this is the essence of La La Land. Of course, the movie isn’t perfect, but there is a prickling wholesomeness to it. So, while the movie may not be “perfect”, it certainly touches upon some kind of perfection that I am struggling to explain. Anyway, at its core, La La Land marries Hollywood and the Broadway style of musicals with a tinge of Bollywood merriment and magnitude. Borrowing from some well-made, so called, romance movies of Hollywood the organic growth of a relationship, from Broadway the use of music to show that growth within the space of a four minute song as opposed to twenty minute long sequences and from Bollywood the sheer magnitude and pizzazz of the musical numbers. Let me demonstrate—the movie opens with a wonderful song, straight out of the intersection of 7th avenue and 47th street in NY, on an LA highway. As the song carries on and the dancers jump onto the roof of the cars, the camera pans out to show that an entire exit of a “legit” interstate is populated with people doing the same steps; you could be forgiven for mistaking this to be a scene from a Bollywood movie. And the Hollywood bit comes from the magical moment when Ryan Gosling vigourously honks at Emma Stone, and she shows him the finger as he circumvents her car.
“Who knows, is it the start of something wonderful?
Or one more dream I cannot make true.”
This is the story of a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, both looking to make it big in the city of angels, and how they fall in love, and then are forced out of it as their careers take-off. Can you feel that “kick” of melancholy yet? Yes, it is a love story, but isn’t one that fills your heart with joy and you leave with hope and happiness. As many have said, it is very “real”. But, you must understand, it isn’t that simple. Movies, unless they are biopics or documentaries, are a way for us to escape the situations of our lives and be immersed in those of others, without any consequence to us. There is nothing “real” about them, except how visceral the actors make it feel. When it comes to movies that have love as a central theme, it feels like you are biting into a burger where the filling is falling apart and, as if that wasn’t enough, there is cheese bursting out of the buns (apparently, now I also advise on how to die young). Look, I know this is deep, also irritating given how 21st century I’m being here. But you know you’d prefer this over me using “rad” or “hip”, like a dad trying too hard to be cool (imagine a stereotypical Indian accent using those words and, well, you get the point). What I mean is that when we watch movies about love, we are escaping our reality and entering one where we constantly parallel our truths about love with those in the movie, reality versus imagination, and so, a movie like La La Land would affect each individual differently, depending on their experiences of love. Now, having given all students and patched-up veterans of ToK (you’re lucky if you don’t know what that means), let’s make this review a little more entertaining.
Now, I’m no one to comment about looks, especially not those of Ryan Gosling (xD), but he spends much of the movie looking like he was being forced to enjoy The Return of Xander Cage. Ah, the surly look of the bad-stomached. But perhaps it was intentional that only around music he enjoyed and Emma Stone did he actually seem to honestly smile (more later about honest smiles). Remember the burger analogy? The movie used music to tie it all up so it doesn’t fall apart, and it helped maintain a balance between letting the movie get all gooey and Nicholas Sparks-y and as real and visceral as 127 Hours. And, honestly, it is just smart direction if the lover only smiles when his love his around (possibly even just good sense). Subtleties like that make La La Land such a blockbuster that has won the hearts of millions. It’s a very old cliché to hear people say that in love, only the little things count (like size and stamina), but it seems oddly true in the case of this movie. Given its running time of about 120 minutes and its covering of all things to do with professional sacrifices for love, and set over four seasons with multiple songs, what the couple does for each other are the “big” things—he encourages her with her play, cooks “cute” dinners, she defends him from her family and supports him during his concerts. But set in the background of these gestures are the little things embedded in the movie that make you smile—her cumulative frustration at being rejected for job after job, her desire for him to not name his jazz club “Chicken on a Stick” and this scene in one song. She sees him after months, after he got fired and ignored her compliments earlier (long story, watch movie), performing for a party with his band. There isn’t actual animosity between them but that spark isn’t quite there yet. And through the course of the song, with the sun setting over LA, on and around a bench, you see the glimmers between them beginning to sparkle. That subtlety through music, coupled with cultivating such an organic growth of a relationship, is never easy to attain.
“City of Stars, are you shining just for me?”
The song begins with “Some other girl and guy, Would love the swirling sky. But there’s only you and I, And we’ve got no shot,” and it feels surreal how that little sequence of under three minutes lights a genuine fire between the two. I’m no expert in music so it might be a little counterproductive for me to comment on the technical qualities of the songs, but as a reviewer, I can say that there is a magical feeling to them. No song features “hands/ants-in-my-pants” dancing, movements are deliberate, the music feels ethereal, especially when set against empty boulevards or in jazz clubs where there is but one spotlight on the piano. The movie doesn’t celebrate singing and dancing like it’s a festival, nor does it employ it merely as a soundtrack. Elaborate and careful in its use, the makers have hit that sweet spot between too much and too little with the music. The way their relationship grows, it’s almost as though music is like the water they need for it to grow. Instead of being overpowering and overwhelming, it embeds itself within their love and blossoms along with it. Until they break up, and she marries and has kids with someone else five years later, that is.
Comparing this movie with something recent that has to do with some kind of love, say Collateral Beauty, is like comparing a bald person and a person with hair; the difference is obvious. The latter makes you want to throw up whereas La La Land makes you want to swallow your tears because at least they had “that” kind of love, they had each other. These may just be the musings of a romantic but there was a perfection to their love, like they completed each other but left with more than they had earlier. Right at the end, five years into the future, she’s a famous actress and he has done well with his band and owns a jazz club (called “Seb’s”, thankfully) and she is with her husband and daughter; they are both living their separate lives. When she walks into his club with her husband, stunned at seeing him, he plays the song that she first complimented him on, all those years ago. Within moments which could fill a lifetime, she has this thought about how life could be if they were together. After he ends the piece, she’s at the exit and turns around, their eyes meet, and they both smile at each other. Yes, love torn apart, boo hoo, they’re not together, it’s quite sad. But when they smile, you can see the veracity of their smiles. There is nothing fake there, nothing fake about the fact that they still love each other, nothing false about what their ideal scenarios would have been, yet an honest and perhaps satiated contentment with their own lives and choices. It feels customary to add something negative about the movie, having claimed that it wasn’t perfect. Honestly, the only thing I can think of is the one part where Emma Stone casually says, “I don’t like jazz. It’s like elevator music.” That is where things got a little heated and I may have cracked my laptop screen. I know there are things here that aren’t perfect, but I’m struggling to point them out, not only because I loved the movie but also because the very idea of love lacks anything even closely similar to universal perfection. The beauty of it is, though, both in the movie and perhaps in reality, love is an empty word which we fill with our meaning and our ideas of perfection. Don’t watch La La Land because you find the actors “hot”, or because you are a stark-raving romantic (am I being a little hypocritical here?) or simply because “I like the songs, and I need something new. Let It Go has been stuck in my head long enough” (maybe a little hypocrisy is creeping in). Watch it because it is unlikely you’ll find something about love that would make you sad but still have you go “Holy shit, wow!”.
“And though you look so cute,
In your polyester suit–“
“You’re right, I’d never fall for you at all.”