Comparing La La Land to Casablanca and Gene Kelly: A Few Thoughts

I’m not one for film reviews, because I don’t think I know as much as most other reviewers out there, being that I’ve never had any real training in anything related to film. But having just seen La La Land, I thought it might be worth my while to take a look at what the film was going for and how successful it was, especially compared with the other films it was inspired by.

La La Land was released in 2016, and it stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The film takes place in Los Angeles, California, when a barista named Mia, who is trying to become a Hollywood actress, befriends an aspiring jazz musician named Sebastian. Of course, if you know anything about Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, you already know where this is going: the two slowly fall in love, and they both just as gradually find their way into the success they were always looking for… but does their relationship and successes turn out to be all that they were hoping for? Don’t look at me; I’m not going to tell you. I’m not that much of a spoiler. And anyway, that’s not even the point of this post. But there are spoilers, so forge ahead carefully.

La La Land is a jazz musical, so there are several song and dance numbers, and the whole atmosphere of the movie is clearly trying to be an updated version of any classic 1940s romance film. It takes place in the modern day, just like all of the classic films did, so it was clear to me that La La Land was trying to be its own classic, as if a fan of classic films could tack this one on as the last in a long line of classic romantic films. This may be a strange comparison, but it almost felt like what Disney was going for when they made The Princess and the Frog to be the last of their classic princess movies. It looked like La La Land followed a very similar tactic, at least to me.

Obviously, the film had to stay relevant, because the whole point was to make a fresh new acoustic song-and-dance musical that wasn’t a joke (like “Galavant” or Hairspray… wait, what do you mean Hairspray isn’t supposed to be a joke?), so instead of starring a famous jazz musician or a famous tap dancer, the filmmakers opted for Stone and Gosling, which was a smart move for younger audience members, but it also set a severe limit for how much the film could do in the way of singing and dancing.

It seemed fairly obvious to me that while La La Land had several classic influences (like Audrey Hepburn with some of the fashion and personality quirks of Mia), the main inspirations for the film appeared to be Gene Kelly movies (specifically Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris) and Casablanca. Some of the references were direct, like Mia pointing out a window used in Casablanca, or Sebastian swinging around a lamppost like Kelly’s famous “Singin’ in the Rain” number. Or how about, oh, I don’t know, the entire five-minute dance number with sets and costumes directly taken from An American in ParisJust a thought there. But these two influences had more to do with the makeup of La La Land than simple Easter eggs.

First of all, even the name La La Land, given that the film is labelled as romantic, is probably a direct correlation to Casablanca, being that both films are named after the place of an unlikely meeting that turns into a painful yet valuable romance. Then, the audience finds that the entire plot of La La Land centers around a jazz pianist who hopes to run a jazz joint, much like how Casablanca centers on the owner of a jazz joint. While Gene Kelly influences the personality of Sebastian, the dancing (obviously), and even the songs themselves, with their clever lyrics and playful banter, Bogart and Bergman seem to be the reason for the setup and advancement of the story. In other words, I think that Kelly influences the details and minute-by-minute character interactions, while Casablanca influences the bigger picture of how the film progresses.

Perhaps the biggest Casablanca influence comes near the end, where (major spoiler alert!) the viewer finds out that Mia and Sebastian part ways as Mia becomes a famous film actress, and Mia winds up marrying someone else. Mia and her husband walk into Seb’s jazz joint at the very end of the film for a very sad montage of what could have been, but the whole scene is straight out of Casablanca. Of all the jazz joints in all the world… she walks into his. Sound familiar? He sees her in the crowd and proceeds to jump on the piano and play the song that was essentially the theme of their whole relationship, and as painful as it is, he won’t stop. Play it, Seb. And in the end, Seb never talks to Mia, only lets her go with another man, but the two share a look that communicates their undying love despite all of that… exactly like the end of Casablanca.

So what did I mean before when I said that casting Stone and Gosling limited La La Land? Well, as much as the film was trying to be the new Casablanca and An American in Paris, casting two actors who are decent singers but not professionals and who can only handle basic dancing will tend to limit the film’s potential. Add to that the fact that most of the important dialogue between the two was simply shot/reverse shot, even though the two might be talking while overlooking LA, or in a beautiful forest landscape, or in their apartment at twilight, with potential for fantastic shadow-play. I would think that if La La Land picked up so many cues from Casablanca, it would also have implemented Casablanca‘s awesome placement of shadows, but I could find very few instances of it. Also, being that the film targeted a modern audience, the songs were heavy towards the beginning, and then they became scarce in the latter two-thirds of the movie, so as not to lose the audience. The only big ensemble numbers were in the opening and the closing, and I wish there had been more, considering that the ensemble numbers were excellent. But that’s not going to hold the attention of the young audience who’s there to see Stone and Gosling. La La Land really is like a combination of the couple’s last two films together: Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad.

All in all, I thought that the film was very well-done, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it on Broadway in a couple of years. The whole film was written with essentially only dialogue and dance numbers, with simple and connected sets (like leaving the party and walking to the LA overlook), and it would be really easy to adapt for the stage. The film was also divided into four acts and an epilogue, each marked by a season (winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter again). So this film was trying to balance a whole heck of a lot while also trying to be creative and original and hip. Is “hip” a relevant term anymore? Dope. The film was trying to be dope. Is that better?

Despite its modern hold-backs, La La Land is really quite a gem in modern cinema, and even when compared to Casablanca and Gene Kelly films, it still manages to hold up as a film that is both “worthy” of such a comparison and its own original work of art.

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