How 'La La Land' takes a different trajectory to other Hollywood insider films

With the release of ‘La La Land’ next week, Geoffrey Macnab takes a look at other Tinseltown dramas including ’The Artist' and ‘A Star Is Born’ to examine the conflicts of romance versus career 

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Wednesday 04 January 2017 11:02
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Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in ‘La La Land’
Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in ‘La La Land’

There’s a moment toward the end of Damien Chazelle’s Oscar contender La La Land which highlights the in-built tensions in romantic dramas set in Hollywood.

“You’ve got to give it everything you’ve got,” the jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) tells his lover, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), as she prepares for a potential breakthrough role in a movie.

The film is full of references to the glory days of the studios, when movies like Notorious and Casablanca were being made. It also self-consciously evokes MGM musicals like Singin’ In The Rain and insider Tinseltown dramas like the George Cukor version of A Star Is Born (1954). It would be perverse to read a film as joyous as La La Land in a downbeat way. However, the quest for stardom and the pursuit of long-term love rarely sit together comfortably.

Stone and Gosling make a beguiling couple. There are magical interludes here, self-consciously evoking the golden years of Hollywood, in which we see them wandering through the studio backlots, singing and dancing in the hills or at the Planetarium which featured in Rebel Without A Cause.

Stone and Gosling make a beguiling couple. There are magical interludes here, self-consciously evoking the golden years of Hollywood, in which we see them wandering through the studio backlots, singing and dancing in the hills or at the Planetarium which featured in Rebel Without A Cause.

La La Land is shot in CinemaScope and in iridescent colour. It seems for large stretches of its running time to be the perfect escapist fantasy. Gosling and Stone may not be Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse but they dance with a zest and charm that transcends mere pastiche. Chazelle and his technicians make Los Angeles look utterly magical. Even rush hour traffic jams on the freeway are a pretext of elaborate song and dance numbers, shot with swooping cameras.

The film unfolds of the course of a year, with winter giving way to spring. The irony, of course, is that we are in California where the sun shines all the year around. Chazelle is trying to give the film some of that same wistful, gentle melancholy that characterises the films of French director Jacques Demy.

Scrape beneath the surface though and the film, like so many other Tinseltown tales, turns out to be bleaker than it first seems. Both Mia and Sebastian are intensely ambitious, which is why there are in LA in the first place. They’re in love with each other – but they’re also preoccupied with their careers.

In films like A Star Is Born or The Artist, one star will be going up while the other comes down – and they meet briefly on their respective journeys. At the beginning of A Star Is Born, Hollywood matinee idol Norman Maine (James Mason) is already beginning his very rapid alcohol-fuelled decline. Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) is the young singer heading in the opposite direction. There’s a similar dynamic in The Artist in which the old-time silent star George Valentin is about to be eclipsed by the beautiful young dancer/extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) first seen bumping into him outside the premiere of one of his films.

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The silent film star George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin and Uggie, the Jack Russell in ‘The Artist’ (2011)

La La Land has a different trajectory. Mia and Sebastian are both at similar stages in their careers. Mia is “someone in the crowd, waiting to be found,” a would-be actress two years out of college. She lives in a shared apartment and works as a barista in a coffee shop on the studio lot. Sebastian is “on the ropes” and wants to be there. He’s a jazz purist who can’t bear the idea of compromise but is reduced to eking out a few dollars by playing Christmas songs in an upmarket restaurant or by playing Eighties hits with a party band.

There are moments here in which we glimpse the desperation of the two artists, stuck at the bottom of the tree and desperately trying to clamber up it. Stone is shown attending an audition. She performs the lines that she has long rehearsed with a lacerating intensity but the casting agent isn’t even paying attention and hasn’t even noticed that Mia’s blouse is drenched with coffee. There’s somebody at the door. Mia is quickly dismissed, her performance barely acknowledged. Gosling’s character suffers similar humiliation, playing Christmas songs to restaurant customers and provoking the wrath of the manager (JK Simmons in Scrooge-like form) if he so much as strays away from “Jingle Bells”.

The attraction between Mia and Sebastian lies at least partly in their similarity. They’re both passionate about what they do. That’s what brings them together and what threatens to drive them apart. You just need to look at the titles of films about actors and musicians on their way up to realise that success is almost always singular, not collective. It’s “a” star is born or it’s all about “Eve”. That’s why La La Land is so paradoxical as well as so enrapturing. It’s a romance in which the lovers care as much or more about their careers as they do about each other.

‘La La Land’ is released on 13 Jan

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