Why La La Land Works

I think we can all agree that La La Land was pretty good, right? While I am only comfortable only saying that three of its record-equalling fourteen Academy Award nominations were justified (best director, musical score, and cinematography), it is still going to be remembered for years as not just the movie that nearly stole Moonlight‘s Best Picture win, but also on its own merits of being a stupendously good film.

Most of the pre-Oscar buzz was that it didn’t deserve most of its nominations because it was just pandering to Hollywood. I can see where that line of thought comes from; Hollywood has shown time and time again that making films about Hollywood will net you a good couple of nominations and wins if you play it right. Remember The Artist from 2012? It did the exact same thing, but going back to the Silent Era rather than the Golden Age of musicals like La La Land did. However, I disagree that La La Land got its Oscars by just being a throwback to when Hollywood was the only market in the world.

The nominations idea would only make sense if everyone outside of Hollywood did not enjoy it. I can safely say that’s not the case. Personally, I gave it 10/10 and went to go see it twice, something which I never did in my stint as a film critic. I have a different theory for why it became so popular and not just that it has been so long since we’ve seen an truly dyed-in-the-wool musical. Heck, Disney has been reliably been doing that since the early 1990s. No, my theory entails going back to 1971 and the Dragon himself, Bruce Lee.

What Bruce Lee can teach us about La La Land

Why do we go see films? Sorry to throw such a philosophical question right at the start of a new section, but it does warrant thinking about for my analogy. I’ve thought up a few ideas; narrative, escapism, favourite actor, favourite director, great marketing or its been lauded as a classic by your friends, family, and critics. Those have been some I reasons I have gone to see films. But all of that can be boiled down into one word; spectacle.

Spectacle as been at the forefront of cinema since the conception of the film industry. People went mad when they saw a train pulling into a station on screen and started fleeing the cinema because they thought it was going to burst through the screen and flatten them all. Imagine when Al Jonson first started speaking in The Jazz Singer, people probably went mental over hearing sound and screen in sync with one another. For a more modern example, why do we pride ourselves on watching the most sick and depraved films we can find? Why do films like The Human Centipede Trilogy, A Serbian Film or Martyrs have an odd cultural capital around them? Why do we go and watch horror films, even though a lot of us hate the loud noises and flashing spooky faces? Spectacle. We love seeing things of screen that would be hard to replicate on stage, on television, or even in real life. Now onto Bruce Lee.

In a fascinating interview in 1971 with Pierre Berton, Bruce Lee discussed his blossoming acting career, his history with martial arts, and his personal philosophies. Even for non-martial artists, it is still an interesting watch to see one of the most clued-in men who ever lived give his wisdom on certain aspects of life. At the beginning of the interview Berton and Lee talk about the latter’s movie career and how most of it is translated for the wider Chinese audience (Lee spoke Cantonese while most of mainland China speaks Mandarin). Staring at 2:14 the conversation goes like this;

Berton: I gather in the movies made here, the dialogue is rather stilted anyway…

Lee: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, see to me, a motion picture is motion…

Berton: Yeah…

Lee: I mean, you gotta keep the dialogue down to a minimum.

Obviously Lee was talking about his own films. His films were to showcase his extraordinary abilities at martial arts, any story that was there was to just set up the next protracted hand-to-hand sequence. But I like his theory, the film is about motion and so should be reflected in the film.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good talkie movie. I think Casablanca is objectively the best film ever made and that is mostly people talking to one another in a bar or on an airstrip. But it is that something, that spectacle of seeing an incredible dance performed on screen, in La La Land‘s case in one take. Remember this tap dancing sequence? (For those who do not wish to be spoiled, don’t watch the clip)

This is exactly what Lee was talking about. It is the motion of Gosling and Stone, how in sync they are with their moves that makes it inherently watchable and enjoyable. That’s why if you YouTube that clip, you’ll find so many remakes or news clips about how influential it is. People love to see that spectacle and wish to recreate it. For another, look at any dance number Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performed. Or if you want to go to the extreme, the fights scenes from The Raid or The Raid 2.

The two latter films are another great example of what Lee said, dialogue kept to a minimum so that we can see some gloriously choreographed fights. Fighting and dance are incredibly close; both require full body motion nearly at all times which is why they are so amazing to watch on screen. Edit: In an interview on BBC 5 Live, Gareth Evans, director of The Raid discussed how he would work out choreography to his fight scenes to music,

Kermode: …for me, the best of those [martial arts] movies…are closer to musicals, to dance numbers than anything else and that’s how they should be understood.

Evans: It is interesting you say that because when we are actually doing the choreography we clap along, we figure out what the rhythm is to the fight. So the idea between how long blocks before a punch is kind of like percussion…it takes on a certain musical form. (9:11).

Another famous martial artist, Jackie Chan, also follows this principle when he choreographs fight scenes. In commentary for the film Project A, film executive Bey Logan comments,

“…and there is a rhythm also, to the way shots are performed, and also the way they are edited. And Jackie said something very interesting, that the audience don’t know the rhythm there until it is NOT there.” (4:18).

Following on from that, the YouTube channel Every Frame A Painting mentions, “Jackie’s fight scenes have a distinct musical rhythm, a timing he sets out with the performers.” (4:29).

We get spectacle, either from seeing an excellent spring ball-change or a man getting hit in the face with a claw hammer. Both require a rhythm and endless practice, but once they are done filming they are some of the most electric scenes ever put to screen.

But anyway that’s my theory for why La La Land became such a big hit. It wasn’t just that it made a musical that could have stood up there with Singin’ In The Rain, but that fact that it played up to the motion part of the motion picture, with a performance that was more than just your average dance or action scene.

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