Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
If Whiplash was unforgiving in its intensity when it came to its portrayal of achieving artistic and creative-driven dreams, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up was a dreamier concoction, one brimming with more hope and optimism, even if in the end it is a film that cannot help but break your heart just a little bit.
Like his feature-length directorial debut, La La Land culminates with a dazzling sequence that is alive to the joys of cinema and is one of those incredible moments that makes you want to point to the screen and shout out to the sky that this is why you love film. Similarly to Whiplash, the very final scene boils everything down to a simple moment where eyes lock across the room, with so much being said and unsaid. Interestingly, it would be repeated again in the final scene of Chazelle’s next film after this, his superlative Neil Armstrong biopic First Man.
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Where Whiplash left us with maybe more questions than it did answers in that regard, (was it a good thing or a bad thing that its lead characters achieved that moment of catharsis?), Chazelle’s more delicate love story set against the backdrops of a gorgeously lit Los Angeles (courtesy of director of photography Linus Sandgren) leaves your heart in knots yet again, but in a more melancholically lovely manner, the audience and the film buzzing with the proclamation that sometimes it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
It’s an easy film to knock, or even mock, nowadays. The instantaneous acclaim it gained at festivals from critics soon gave way to an inevitable backlash, with some of the criticisms petty, others very much justified. However, it’s hard not to be swayed by the sheer ambition of the whole thing, and while its tone is markedly different, it does function as a ‘light over the hill’ companion piece to the darker realities of Whiplash.
Originally set to reunite its director with Miles Teller in the role of Sebastian, with Emma Watson as Mia, the film instead ended up starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, reuniting themselves for the third time following the rom-com brilliance of Crazy, Stupid, Love and the not so brilliant Gangster Squad. The image of Gosling in his white shirt and dark tie and Stone in her yellow dress as they dance on a small road with the LA skyline in the background became an instantly iconic one for many, adorning the posters and frequently being the clip used on television shows when talking about the film.
For its first half, the film plays like the type of rom-com musical that you’d expect it to be, and Chazelle excels with the more magical realism qualities of his script and direction. As noted before, the ace up the sleeve is Linus Sandgren, who gives the entire film a look that is glossily naturalistic. He captures the air and atmosphere of an LA, where dreams are pursued to either become a reality or die in a way that is both magical and yet also tenderly realistic.
Sebastian and Mia are the archetypes we’ve seen before; he’s a jazz pianist who has dreams of owning his own jazz club, and she wants to be an actress. We watch as they fall in love through music and dance, initially not so fond of each other before swirling into the starry sky of Griffith Park Observatory in a stunning crescendo that brings the first half of the film to a joyous conclusion that in any other musical of a bygone era would have been where it was done and dusted.
However, this is Chazelle, and things will not come easy. Success comes for Sebastian, who becomes a keyboardist for a jazz fusion band put together by a former classmate, played by John Legend. The success feels like an easy sell-out that he struggles to come to terms with, all the while Mia’s career prospects flounder with a one-woman show that doesn’t take off. An audition at the end seals the deal for her and opens the gates for stardom and a successful career. The film counterbalances her time as a waitress at the start of the film with the image of herself being the one served coffee, but being a nicer customer than the one she served at the start.
The bitter sting comes with the knowledge that while both have achieved their dreams, they haven’t done so together. Mia has met someone else, and just to twist the knife in a little further, the big musical flourish the film ends on isn’t the two getting back together, it’s a ‘what might have been’ sequence that shows us how their lives would have ended up if they remained together, a magnificent sequence that finds its tender air in a final ‘eyes meeting across the room’ moment where they both briefly smile at one another, happy at the memories they made before going on to make new ones in different directions from the other.
It might be easy to scoff at the ‘white boy saves jazz’ trope of Sebastian, or the more cliched elements of the story, or to remember it for being part of one of the biggest blunders in the history of the Academy Awards, and yet it’s a hard film to resist. The Academy Awards made the right decision in awarding Moonlight, it’s a film with more to say in the end, and yet the frothy concoction that is La La Land still remains entertaining (even though I prefer the harsher realities of Richard LaGravenese’s The Last Five Years starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan for how bitterly it documents the breakdown of a relationship with a musical flavour).
The soundtrack and the music cues are wonderful. Justin Hurwitz’s score is joyful and melancholy when it needs to be, feeling like a genuine tribute to the world of the Golden Age of Musicals, while the songs from iconic lyricists Pasek and Paul (who had already done Dear Evan Hansen on stage prior to this and who would go on to write the equally iconic soundtrack to The Greatest Showman) are fantastic. ‘Another Day of Sun’, the number that opens the film is a proper banger and gets the film off to a grandiose start that beggars belief for the fact the sequence was shot on a part of an LA freeway, which are notoriously horrendous for trying to navigate.
While Hollywood musicals of old are part and parcel of its DNA, in the end, it perhaps owes more of a debt to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as much as it does to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The combination of the magic of music with the realities of emotional life comes together superbly throughout and allows its moments of highs to soar, but its sadder moments to sting.
Maybe it’s not the cool thing to say anymore, but I still rather love the film.