Nothing But A Dream

I have an unhealthy obsession with La La Land. For some people, their guilty pleasure films may be The Notebook, or A Star Is Born. Mine, would have the the Oscar-winning film from 2016, La La Land. I cry when I watch it. I dance when I watch it. And I definitely sing when I’m done watching it. This is the film that makes me believe fervently in romance, yet despise the absolute cruelty of it, all at the same time. If love was the goal, shouldn’t longevity be winning? This film pits career and love in a cage and lets them bash away at each other, until one is left standing. Let me tell you right now, this film does not have a happy ending, only a necessary one.

Like a jealous girl asking herself, “What does he see in her?”, there is an inexplicable force making dreams seem so impossibly cinematic. Like the next person, I have huge aspirations, and my nightly dreams soar even higher than imagination can ever carry. Perhaps it’s the chase, the song and dance of it. The grandiosity, vividness. Or its proximity. How close it seems once we’ve projected the idealized versions of ourselves in the cinema of our subconscious. I suppose the real question is what makes us want to chase our dreams when the world tells us otherwise. When we’ve faced rejection, tasted failure. How long do we go on chasing something until we realize we’re just making a fool of ourselves?

They first meet on a jammed highway in the baked Los Angeles. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who struggles to make ends meet. Mia is an actress waiting for her big break, and hence, Hollywood. They both have dreams, or rather, goals. Naturally, Sebastian is a traditionalist who has an undiluted taste in jazz, adamant that the old way should stay the same, unfiltered. Mia, is entrenched in the debonair of old Hollywood, and balances her time between the coffeeshop and auditions in vain. It is obvious that these two are supposed to get together; repeatedly running into each other as the seasons go by under the starry nights and plum-hued sunrises. They dance, they sing, and they kiss whilst falling in pétillant love. It defies all logical reason, but under the Milky Way and astrological colours, it is hard not to root for them. The film is a story of how love challenges aspirations and forces you to pick. It forces the characters to weigh up their options and change, potentially deviate from their dreams. Will career remain the natural option, or will love finally triumph in this fictional film?

Remember the first scene of the film? We’re back on that highway. The sweltering sun is roasting everyone in their car alive and just really not enjoyable. Then suddenly, a choreograph appears out of nowhere.

This nightmare turns into something exponentially better. It is an epic scene where literally nothing could go wrong in this idealized world. The garish costumes, coupled by the exhilarating sounds of percussion, make you realize one thing. In La La Land, anything is possible, and all that goodness can be quickly shut down as well. The music stops, putting an (somewhat) abrupt halt to the fun, reminding everyone that reality is mundane and overrated.

La La Land is another musical in a long line of blockbuster films to have stamped their mark on the film world. I remember watching Grease, Moulin Rouge! and Singing’ In The Rain when I was a kid, and I genuinely think this film is better than the rest. The onscreen chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is so apparent, and that helped bring the two characters to life. Their portrayals in Crazy, Stupid, Love should have been a good indicator. After some research online, I found out that the two actors had taken dancing and singing classes to be able to perform on set, and Ryan Gosling actually learned to play the piano in preparation of his piano scenes. My point is, behind the scenes, the people involved in this film thoroughly deserved the awards that they received. Moving on from my fan-girling…

Outside the walls of her auditions, Mia makes a living in a cafe, serving Hollywood its pot of fresh coffee. This is a classic tale of so close yet so far. She is literally in La La Land, and still so far removed. She works her butt off in numerous auditions, drowning herself in the subjectivity of an emotional beat when something disturbs. Mia is not an actor. She is just another struggling actress in a long line of red-heads impatiently waiting to take the same bait.

His religion being jazz, Sebastian sees himself as the resurrector of jazz, or at least someone who will try bringing it back to its former glory. The decorations in his apartment are record ornaments from the jazz greats, and an upright piano takes centre stage. A jazz pianist he is.

Mia goes to a party with whom I presume to be her roommates. Again, like on the highway, we see dancing and singing, and even fireworks. And just like the highway, the scene transitions to a somber car-tow. The magical dream ends. Mia’s melancholic walk back home is a very good example of where her life is currently at. A walk of shame. Imagine this, your car is towed, your amazing city hates and shuns you, leading you to interrogate yourself once again, “Was it all worth it?” The road is long and hard, but she’s navigated it countless times, each embark for each failed audition. The path to Sebastian features the “You Are The Star” mural, the household names from Old Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean; a veritable who is who of the cinema greats right in front of us, and Mia. A notable play on the roles of spectatorship, where the roles of artist and audience are inverted, making the average passerby the object of their gaze and thus, their cinema. It’s enough to make you think that anyone in LA can make it as an actor. She simply needs a spark, something to inspire her, but right now, she needs something to soothe her. Someone sprinkles a few melodic break crumbs on the pavement, which leads to Sebastian.

The most iconic song from this film has to be “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme Song”, and I’ll just let the music producer, Justin Hurwitz, to do the talking here. That’s the point of the soundtrack, to make the film both fulfilling, and disappointing, an oxymoronic end that the film had planned.

“I think the reason Damien wanted me tackling the Mia and Sebastian theme first was because it was a tricky emotional tone to figure out. It had to be hopeful but melancholy, optimistic but a bit sad as well. That was a tone that found its way into all the rest of the songs: “City of Stars,” “Another Day of Sun,” “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” they all kind of exist in a similar emotional universe. They are emotionally complex. They’re not fully happy or fully sad. I think once we figured out the main theme of the movie, that informed what that sound is, what that compositional voice is. That tonality found its way throughout all of the songs and the score.”

Working under a mean boss who does not appreciate Sebastian’s talents, Sebastian is restricted to only a playlist of piano pieces. Maybe it is coincidence, but when Mia enters the Lipton’s restaurant, Sebastian plays the very crux of the soundtrack, “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme Song”. He is fed up with the limitations cast upon him, and his own inability to garner a better audience, cause him to break the playlist-rule to play something original. It is a beautiful, short ballad, capable of arresting the attention of everyone and literally puts the spotlight on him. You don’t really know how to describe it, yet it feels like an empty nostalgia. Run your hands over the black notes to find the two gaps in between the B-C and E-F keys, add in your emotional twist to the rhythm, and you’ll create your own version of “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme Song”. Like the rest of the diners, Mia is mesmerized by Sebastian’s music, until he unmannerly shrugs away her conversation. He’s just been fired.

Why work for such a mean boss in the first place? Mia dreams of being a successful actress whereas Sebastian wants to open his own jazz club. The only problem with that is his reluctance to sacrifice, which gradually becomes a major theme in the film. In order to succeed, Sebastian needs to cater to what others want, rather than what he is passionate about. All of this sacrifice just so that he can fulfill his dream in the long run. You can ask the same question to Mia. What are you doing to stand out? The truth of the matter is, she just isn’t that worthwhile. Mia is in a spot where she does not seem to be doing anything substantial to stand out. Instead, she simply exists. The film does a lot to show these characters being trapped wanting their dreams yet that is the frightful point. You are strongest when you are the farthest away from achieving your dream.

Their stories parallel each other, as both characters share the same plight within the same genre. They struggle to prove their worth in LA, that is evident, as the sand leaks down the hourglass at lento speed. Their budding romance grows because of what they bring to the table for each other. Yes, it is love, and romance, and everything lovey-dovey, but it is also companionship and an audience. That’s why they are attracted to each other; aside from the laws of physical attraction, genuine interest in the other’s passion. In brilliant cinematic fashion, they plunge deep each other’s souls. My old man used to have this saying. “You’re only good at what you’re passionate about.” The jazz pianist Sebastian is a compass for the actress Mia, and viceversa. Her curiosity to know more about jazz leads her to hang out more with Sebastian. Sebastian exchanges that deal for films with Mia (though we all know it’s because he has a massive crush on her).

I don’t exactly encourage it, but if you find someone who’s willing to watch a good film with you, do it. Mia does that at the expense of her grandiose boyfriend what’s-his-face. Such an important mission it is to find Sebastian in the theatre, she stands in front of everyone in search of him. Her presence is bewitching, a presence awesome enough to cause him to stand up. Due to the fact that Mia is Sebastian’s navigator in film, is it not wrong to call her, Sebastian’s cinema. It’s a moment of profound surrealism emphasized by the fact that it’s a scene in a movie theatre.

Sebastian is often shown performing, but the film never eclipses Mia’s role. In fact, we only see Sebastian perform because Mia is in attendance, and the film reminds us of the role of the observer as being an active experience as opposed to a passive one. When Sebastian plays, Mia is visibly joyed, awed, in love, the same way Sebastian is at a screening of Rebel Without A Cause, him seeing Mia on stage the way she wants to be seen. When the film reel falls apart, Mia and Sebastian retreat to the actual Griffith Observatory where their romance literally takes off, the movie-going experience figured as a transporting experience as much as it is a transformative one.

La La Land is ultimately Mia’s story. The film may get swept away with Sebastian’s exposition and performance (the only time we see Sebastian perform is when Mia is in attendance), but the film subjects us to Mia’s repeated rejection and heartache. When Mia gets a callback for a TV show, she walks in believing this is her moment. She barely gets out two lines before they cut her off. The dismissal doesn’t come bluntly, but more acutely with false formalities (“I think we’re good”). Mia can barely hold onto a smile as she quietly excuses herself.

Detail

The film itself is a sort of compilation of other films, referencing its predecessors. Sweet Charity is Damien Chazelle’s source for the monochromatic dance between Mia and her roommates. Sebastian swinging from the lamp post before they start tap-dancing Singing’ In The Rain style? Fun fact: The dance, edging 4 minutes, is all shot in one cut. Watch it if you don’t believe me! The final epilogue dance, copies Broadway Melody’s starry night dance scene. From its opening shot to its grand finale, the film is teeming with homages to old Hollywood musicals. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, bombards La La Land with more than enough allusions to the olden days, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Casablanca, and so much more.

One more thing I’d like to point out, is each scene in the film. I swear to god, each scene and cut, is comprised of something beautiful. Seriously, the effort that went into creating the set is more than commendable. The clash of colours, vibrancy and life, makes La La Land, well… La La Land. I won’t go as far as to compare it with black-and-white films from our grandparents’ time, but La La Land’s colour palette genuinely makes films of today, pale in comparison. It exudes animation, green screen, and most importantly, story.

As their love flourishes, the coruscating lights and colours begin to diminish, literally. The arid landscape of reality pushes their paradise out of the picture, which can be also shown in the costume colours. During the first half of the film, Sebastian and Mia wear flashy suits and dresses respectively, whereas later, the costumes become monotone and dark.

Despite the abundance of passion he has, Sebastian cannot run a jazz club if there is no money. Keith comes in, with the promise of piano work, and a good pay. The only catch to this deal is that the band plays “modern-jazz-electronica”. I know, it sounds pompous enough already, so imagine Sebastian’s disgust. To join this band, would be betraying the belief he has been rambling on about for the longest period of time. Nevertheless, he concedes to the reality of his situation. “Keith takes a 4-bar solo, then cedes way for Sebastian. They trade 4’s, each solo more fiery and virtuosic than the last.” from the script of La La Land.

The future of the music lies in wedding it to other forms. Bringing new instruments in. New sounds. People think jazz is irrelevant — and they should. It’s become time-machine art.

Keith has a point when he describes the predicament jazz is in. Nowadays, the only people who listen to jazz are probably a bunch of rich old dudes in posh tuxedos. But it’s like a shark. If it doesn’t keep moving, it dies. Truth is, nostalgia’s the biggest killer of art forms that’s ever existed. The proof? Opera.

His words sting with truth, derailing Sebastian from his path. My favourite line from Keith… How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?

In search of an employment (and recognition), along with Keith’s smooth talking, Sebastian inadvertently surrenders to the new music that he is playing. Whether he enjoys the music is irrelevant because every night he performs in front of rabid fans who show up in droves. Sebastian’s original plans are but a memory, gone in the artificiality of synthesizers and turntables. The horrified look on Mia’s face says it all. To compromise on your dream is worse than never having achieved it at all.

For Mia, she makes a liberating decision to star in a one-woman play. I’ll be curt. It fails. Her act does not generate enough of an audience to even consider a second attempt. Worst of all, her boyfriend, Sebastian, is not in the audience to see her.

This is the harsh reality of artistic endeavors. Because art needs an audience, and Mia, not having one, is once more a struggling actress. Remember when I said that they were each other’s audience? Bang in that dinner scene, they’ve lost a supporting pillar. This is the most real and most honest part of their entire relationship, and I think the best part of the film. It exposes the male and female ego in a relationship so succinctly. Guess what? Look at the dark colours surrounding them.

Defeated, Mia returns to her home back in Boulder City, coincidentally the same place she titled goodbye to in her play. Anguish comes not from a simple lovers’ quarrel. Rather, it’s telling yourself that you’re not good enough. Alone in her room filled with hand-drawn theatre posters, the full breadth of her ambition and its devastation is clear. She wasn’t striving for fame or fortune. She just wanted to express herself in front of people who actually cared to listen. I’ve been to a million auditions, and the same thing always happens, where I get interrupted because someone wants to get a sandwich, or I’m crying and they start laughing, or there’s people sitting in the waiting room and they’re like me but prettier and better at this because maybe I’m not good enough.

This rant spat by Mia is fast and exact, because she has rehearsed her failures to herself for the umpteenth time (yes, Emma Stone has probably rehearsed this part many times too). This scene parallels the dinner scene where she calls him out for selling himself out for success in a band. She was right. In this scene, he is right. They made each other better, but didn’t end up together. I guess that’s life.

Soundtrack

Now I don’t claim to be a musical expert, certainly not good enough to rival someone like Hans Zimmer, but I’d like to classify myself as a musical aficionado. Growing up heavily involved in classical instruments, the twelve notes in each octave are like my friendly neighbours, whom I know from the tips of my fingers. I don’t like creating my own music, perhaps because I don’t have the creative talents for it, so I really admire Justin Hurwitz for this La La Land soundtrack.

Think of the film as a universe, with Sebastian and Mia, and us. Digetic music is a style of storytelling, which can be heard by us, the audience, and them, the characters. This is way more immersing because everyone is hearing/feeling the same thing.

Back to that highway. “Another Day of Sun” embodies the complex nature of how a person would perceive life to be. While it is true that this is just another day under the sun, the irony is that we see a bunch of maniacs dancing on the highway.

The party. “Someone In The Crowd” carries the same theme of Hollywood glamour, deceiving us with its beautiful exterior colours yet bland and bone dry interior. To make it in Hollywood, you need more than just a pretty face and talent. Green, red, blue, and yellow blend to devastating effect, to create the roaring start to the song. Out of the blue, just when your blood is pumping and you’re dancing in your seat, the tempo slows down to an almost depressing tone. We (Mia and the audience) start to understand the barbarism behind the curtains of Hollywood. It is cutthroat, and the only path out of this hellhole is by explicit favours for the right people. You just have to find that someone in the crowd. The depression phase is brief, whereby the adrenaline starts roaring back and sends both the visual and the music into a whirling. A distraction.

The creme de la creme, “Mia & Sebastian Theme Song”. Like I said, this is the crux of the soundtrack, the piece sandwiched in between every drop. The first section belongs to Mia and her will to become a Hollywood success. The second, fanatical jazz ending, to Sebastian. You think you’re happy at first, and then the trauma bites you on the tongue. It is played around five times in the film. I’ve heard it so many times that I can literally see Mia and Sebastian eye-sexing each other when I play this piece myself. Spoiler alert, this piano piece is super easy to play, comprising of just seven notes. I’m sure that you won’t underestimate the power of this song, as it packs so much story and emotion. The epilogue starts with it, and ends with it. And wow, what a way to do it, incorporating every song from the soundtrack in between this time. Cohesive is its name, and summary is its game. This is the buildup to the final, abreactive end. Just, wow.

Sacrifice

Mia returns to LA with Sebastian, does Amy Brandt’s audition, and is given the role to a big movie. Her countless auditions finally bear fruition and she becomes a Hollywood celebrity. Where does that leave Mia and Sebastian? They do not fit in each other’s lives anymore, evident in the gradual parting of their ways (she would not accompany him on tour, he didn’t show up at her play). They met and bonded through their shared struggle. Their struggle, thankfully, does not last. Unfortunately, it means they can’t either. Here’s to the ones who dream Foolish as they may seem

Both are more passionate about each other’s dreams, but what they don’t realize, is what the cost of that is. a sacrifice of what one another truly wants in their life. From the beginning, the story is not about the romantic journey. Sure, it is one thing to ship them, though it is more about their love for one another. Love, that means not being together so that they can accomplish their dreams, and it is all shown when Mia meets Sebastian at his jazz lounge, Seb’s, five years later. Disappointment that they are not still together is still there, but both understand the cost and remember the journey that they had.

The familiar tune Sebastian begins to play elicits a roaring flashback to their relationship and what could’ve happened had their lives turned out differently — a reminder that Mia has and always will be his cinema, Seb now dutifully serving as composer. There is an aching sadness to Sebastian’s dream. He is forever trapped behind a piano, playing the same music over and over. Their relationship is but another archive, another lush piece of history imbued in him (the epilogue deliberately slows down in the final notes, as if Seb is trying to prolong the dream of their romance). The film ends on a quiet note, Mia and Seb not quite running off together as we would hope. Instead, they share a brief, but heartfelt smile. How could they not? They played a role in each other’s lives, more importantly, their dreams. How often can we say that about the people in our own lives?

It’s foolish to think that characters like Mia and Sebastian would risk themselves for the sake of their dreams, Mia having her heart broken after each audition, Sebastian holding out hope for his love of jazz. But wouldn’t it be more foolish if we didn’t risk ourselves at all? La La Landis an ode to the starry-eyed dreamers, the ending itself exemplifying that. Mia and Sebastian, of course, cannot go back in time. But it’s a fantasy that’s true to what they feel in the moment. So much of our lives happen in our minds, in the daydreams we lose ourselves in. Cinema provides exactly that kind of platform. Because cinema is an escape. It’s transportive, the emotion overriding the laws of human nature and causing everyone to inexplicably burst into song. In the cathedral of cinema, where fantasy and reality collide, who are we to decide what’s possible?

Reflections

I have wanted to write my full review on La La Land for the longest time. To this day, the film captivates me enough to fall in love with it over and over again. I have harassed hundreds of people into watching this film and played the hell out of this soundtrack. The last film I watched that was similar to this, was The Devil Wears Prada. Who here’s watched it before? The never-ending tug of war between career and love, is thoroughly explored. This romance film is my favourite of all, the one that I fall in love with, and the one that puts me in the mood for love.

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