Outside the Box: La La Land (2016)- Subverting Expectations

Sometimes I see a film outside of the action genre that I just have to discuss. La La Land is a grand departure from our usual topics of discussion but I think this site is dedicated just as much to film craft as it is good action. And La La Land is, without a doubt, one of the best technical films I’ve ever seen. There’s so much going on, minutiae you’d miss after three or four viewings. For instance, notice how Emma Stone’s character is pretty much without make-up through the whole movie. It’s jarring given we’ve seen her wearing make-up heavily through much of her career. Here we see her raw and clear until she becomes a movie star. Then, suddenly, it’s the Emma we know, wearing makeup and more artificially beautiful because of it.

La La Land starts with a big happy musical number that doesn’t fit in and I think is the weakest part of the whole film. It sets the optimistic and glamorous tone but has no bearing on the story. As it goes along through the first twenty or so minutes we see Mia (Emma Stone) living a fantasy life essentially, doing everything she can to make it big in Hollywood while making coffee for the stars. Everything is bright and colorful, the music is reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood musicals. It’s a fun time.

Cut to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and his mundane, poor, uninteresting life. He’s basically in the same boat as Mia. They’re both struggling to make it in Hollywood, him in music, she in acting. But the colors of the film are more subdued here, there’s not a bright palette and the scenery isn’t dreamlike and fake. He lives in the real world.

It takes a little while before these two characters get together, but when they do the film is wonderfully whimsical and almost satirical. My favorite moment of the first half is when Emma Stone just happens to have tap dancing shoes in her bag for a big musical number. The movie knows the tropes and does everything it can to either subvert them, or make a joke of them.

The romance is wonderfully human, with great chemistry between Gosling and Stone. They’re funny and likeable, awkward and sweet.

And then the movie begins to turn.

La La Land’s final act is not forcibly depressing but it does bring the fantastical down to the human level again. It goes from a tale of romance and chasing your dreams to how attaining your dreams mean giving up the things you love, selling out. The final montage, a beautifully realized and extremely effective culmination of every emotion in the movie, is a middle finger to convention as well as a reflection on all the choices we make in life that have left us in the predicaments we are in. Everyone has wondered what their life would be like had they done A, B, C, etc. It’s a touching finish because it subverts our expectations for this type of movie while also applying that subversion to our own lives.

Another piece of the film I loved was the jazz storyline, how Sebastian was forced to sell out to the modern jazz he seems to have disdain for in order to make a living. It’s an interesting case of selling out that’s handled extremely well. Mia doesn’t mind the music and I would go so far as to say that John Legend’s song in the film, a modern jazz tune, is the best piece in the whole movie. But while the movie is celebrating classic jazz, it also celebrates the idea of metamorphosing jazz to fit with the modern day.

La La Land is actually my favorite movie of the year so far and I can’t stop humming some of the music. It sticks with you long after watching and is so packed with exceptional technical prowess that you can’t help but be enchanted by the films spell. The script, the music, the cinematography, the sets, the costume design, the acting; it all combines to create a movie that is both a throwback to classic Hollywood romance and musical films while subverting every expectation and bringing them to a human and realistic level. It’s an absolute masterpiece of a film.

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2 thoughts on “Outside the Box: La La Land (2016)- Subverting Expectations

    1. Thank you very much! There’s so much to discuss about this film and this review barely scratches the surface. I may go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite films after a few more viewings, it’s just so darn impressive.

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