La La Land: Nostalgic in all the right places
In psychology we have a term for romanticising the past; we call it ‘rosy retrospection’. The Portugese call it ‘suadade’. But even beyond our personal lives, people seem to romanticise full periods that we view as ‘the good old days’. We yearn to step back to a ‘simpler time’, perhaps the roaring 20s or the rockabilly 60s? Or we reflect on the shallow modern Blockbusters with disenfranchisement, instead being smitten with the sweet wholesomeness of Old Hollywood cinema. Music critics bitch and moan that ‘rock is dead’, or that we don’t see anything genuinely new or fresh, because ‘everything is a remix’. We constantly upcycle, sample and borrow from the past. As Angel Olsen knows how to put it best; “there is nothing new under the sun”.
La La Land brings this obsessive love affair with the past to the screen with opaque intensity. The film starts in a Los Angeles traffic jam with a manically happy musical number that signposts the core theme of romantacising a past that could have been. At times, this becomes a surreal exploration of how we wish the world would be, that traffic jams were actually happy places and that people would burst into song to eloquently communicate their deepest insecurities against a catchy tune. It is the kind of ‘if only’ escapism we used to see in movies like The Big Chill, we love to see a world where life is ushered into the mediocre and menial. Cleaning up a kitchen post dinner-party was etched into my mind as the ultimate fun you can have with friends all thanks to The Big Chill – and all that really happens is avid dish drying set to an upbeat Three Dog Night song.
La La Land borrows from the best. Taking the bright colour palette that seems doused in e-numbers from films like West Side Story and The Wizard of Oz. It feels like cheat day for your eyes. Even thematically akin to West Side Story, La La Land explores the American dream; or at least, how we used to see it. The past and present are interwoven. Resurgent fashions like full A-line skirts are meshed with long, single takes afforded by new technology and carefully constructed choreography. Although the film leans heavily on a nostalgic recollection of the past, it should not be mistaken for being pastiche. Small elements like the use of car keys, phones, drum machines and smoke alarms serve as reminders of the present day. These artifacts of our complex world add a textured shadow to the luminous story, whilst the relationship between the two main characters is painfully realistic and familiar.
Director Damien Chazelle has crafted a parallel universe of deep nostalgia that flirts with the line of surreal. The alternate world offers a perfect fit for musical genre and belays a self-awareness. It is as if Chazelle said, “Well they’re not going to believe that Emma Stone is bursting into song so let’s just go all out with spotlights, bright colours and a wardrobe that no human could ever hope to own.” Craftiness aside, I would believe anything Stone or Gosling told me – they inspire adoration in their roles and deserve a standing ovation for their unexpectedly honest and raw vocal performances.
In the same vein as Badbadnotgood making jazz accessible to a casual listener, La La Land makes the past consumable. It is wistful, nostalgic, and whimsically toys with our coloured memory of ‘yesteryear’.