UPDATE: This wonderful wonderful clip compares La La Land to other famous movies, and beautifully proves my point
I recently saw the movie La La Land. If you haven’t heard of the movie yet (when award season comes, you will have) it’s about Mia (Emma Stone), a budding actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) , a jazz pianist, and is set in LA California. At it’s heart, La La Land is a movie about how to define success when pursuing a creative endeavour. It’s a movie that draws heavily from classic Hollywood, and is a deep homage to the “Singing in the Rain”s and “Casablanca”s. Director Damien Chazelle, who most notably directed the recent hit Whiplash, uses what is clearly an expert understanding of music to great effect through the five to six song and dance numbers in the film.
I should begin by saying that I love this film, and would highly recommend it to anyone, especially those that love classic Hollywood movies, as I do. But, I want to focus on one element that I believe set the film up for success. In a movie built on mirroring the themes of others that came before, it would be all too easy to play into tropes. What Damien Chazelle does so successfully is to hint at these cliches, but not buy into them fully. To me this is the difference between using a trope and expressing an ideal.
La La Land uses the ideals of classic Hollywood, but in new ways. The opening scene is a large chorus dance number, with high kicks and a band that suddenly appears. Rather than being shot on some sound stage, the scene takes place on location, on the interstate. Mia and Sebastian’s moonlight duet is ended by a ringing cellphone. Yes these are modernizations, but they also challenge the tropes of sepia-toned Hollywood. Rather than just having a set of strung together clichés, La La Land uses concepts.
This is a movie that keeps you guessing until the end. Even though at times it is reminiscent of what has come previously, this is not a movie you have seen before. It’s not a movie that rests on its laurels, and it challenges the viewer to think about how creativity is applied.
A recent example of this kind of movie – re: tropes vs ideals – is the 2011 film The Artist. Yet another Hollywood indulgence, the film is (mostly) silent, and parodies those of the 1920s and 1930s. It’s charming, and again, while it uses many of the tricks of the silent movie, it remains novel and unique.
There are certainly other ways of challenging tropes. Deadpool, the 2016 Marvel movie, does this in a different way. It’s filled with superhero clichés, but at every opportunity it irreverently pulls apart and mocks every single one of them. At one point the sarcastic masked man sticks a cut–out of Hugh Jackman’s face on his own. Marvel is not only making fun of clichés, it’s making fun of itself. It shows an ability to be self aware that Hollywood, and indeed many people working in some form of creative industry, lack.
Think of every Christmas movie you have ever seen. These movies don’t just follow the same rough idea, they are near carbon copies. There are countless versions of the Christmas family comedy or A Christmas Carol. These movies don’t change the what’s come before them. That’s not to say they’re not enjoyable, they’re just not unique; they’re not that creative. Most importantly, they have no self awareness as each ghost of creativity past, present, and future, marches through the scene.
When a movie like La La Land draws on ideals rather than just clichés, the experience isn’t undercut by the feeling of having seen it before. While familiarity allows people to be in a comfortable space to enjoy your creation, building on cliches leads to just another Christmas movie. The best creators are not the ones that ignore what has come before them, but the ones who acknowledge what they are building on.