Whimsical…and Yet Real

LA LA Land (2016)


I went into this film with an open mind – I used to love old movie musicals, but I was concerned with the fact that it seemed to be a traditional romance. I really was not sure how “old-fashioned” it would be. A lot has changed in society since the 1940s, which seemed to be the era that the film was evoking. How would the story be both nostalgic and relevant?

Having seen LA LA Land, I can now see why it is getting such good reviews. The film manages to get the right mix of nostalgia and modern relevancy, which was no easy feat.

At its core, the film is a whimsical tribute to Los Angeles. I had the feeling that were I more familiar with the city, I could make a drinking game out of all of the familiar landmarks featured in it. However, the locations work their way into the story seamlessly. It is a timeless tale of fighting for one’s dreams, and what better city than Los Angeles to reflect that?

It also reflects the reality of trying to make it in Hollywood. Mia, our leading lady and an aspiring actress (played by Emma Stone), spends a lot of time going to auditions where she is literally just another pretty face. She has to share an apartment with three other young women and despite being large enough to accommodate a dance number, it reminded me a lot of the apartments that I either lived in or visited in my early twenties. In short, Mia is relatable, even in her more glamourous moments.

The leading man, jazz pianist Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), is the classic starving artist. He has big dreams, but is too caught up in his ideas of what is real and traditional to move forward. Sebastian is held back by his nostalgia, while Mia is held back by her insecurities.

Needless to say, the two of them bring out the best in one another and push each other to get ahead, while simultaneously falling in love. That is the “old-fashioned” part of the film. There are singing and dance numbers to go along with their story – although the film relies more heavily on dance numbers as it progresses. I think that has something to do with believability. Dance numbers are inherently symbolic (I would rather watch a dance than a sex scene) and they are also grounded in reality, especially when characters are at a party or bar. On the other hand, breaking out into song is unusual, especially when it done by more than one person. This was forgivable in the past when movie musicals were more like films of stage-shows, but it is less acceptable now. The filmmakers manage to walk a tightrope in giving us just enough singing and allowing the bulk of the story to be done in dance – or just normal dialogue.

Two thirds of the film go by in an entirely predictable fashion – I was even envisioning scene changes and act breaks. But then I began to worry. Would the story proceed as I was expecting it to, from my experience with 1940s and 1950s musicals? I hoped not.

In the past, one of the characters in the couple would have been expected to give up or alter their dreams. Usually, this involved settling down and raising a family. Either the man would give up his roving ways or the woman would give up her career aspirations. They would give up risk-taking for a steady paycheque and babies. This would be presented as the desirable happy ending. This film includes a nice nod to this toward the end, but it takes its characters into a different place. It is the 2010s, after all.

There is a saying that of having something done fast, cheaply, or well, you can only pick two of them. I would adapt that for this story to say that either Sebastian or Mia can fulfill their dreams separately (or at the expense of the other’s dreams), or they can stay together and compromise both – and achieving neither. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by the choice that the filmmakers made! It was a happy ending, just not the happy ending that the audience expected.

What struck me most about this story was its treatment of nostalgia. There is a tendency for people to want to keep something just as it is or was – or how they thought it was or ought to have been. Nostalgia is not bad, nor is it entirely whimsical. However, it must be carefully balanced with change. Sebastian holds on to the past in his music, but as a friend tells him, if there is no one listening, the music is going to die. It must be embraced by the young, even if that means evolving. There is a difference between changing to survive and “selling out”. It is difficult to figure out this difference, but it is necessary to do so. Otherwise, the tradition that we hold so sacred and dear will die with us.

I really enjoyed how this film was crafted. It was whimsical and colourful, but it was grounded in reality. It was about shattering preconceived notions and embracing one’s dreams. Romance is wonderful and sometimes is what gives us the kick in the pants to realise what we want in life, but it is not the happy ending that we are looking for.

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