Written for The Federalist
January 22nd, 2017
As a birthday present this past year, my siblings got me a T-shirt that reads, “I’m fluent in movie quotes.” It is a fitting gift for a film buff like myself.
Most of my favorites are older than my parents are. I enjoy many recent flicks, but only the occasional film enters the rarified company of my favorites. Yet even before I saw “La La Land” I knew it would be one of those films.
I was swept away by the trailer, fell in love with the concept, and declared it a winner before I even watched it. So enamored with the musical was I that I drove nearly two hours just to see it, since it wasn’t released anywhere near my rural North Carolinian home. Then, when I did finally see the movie, I was utterly impressed.
The movie follows two dreamers in Los Angeles: Mia, a struggling young actress, and Sebastian, a jazz lover who wants to open a club where they only play good, old-fashioned jazz the way it’s meant to be played. The two cross paths a few times, and eventually start a relationship.
The film is beautifully made, with eye-catching dance numbers and catchy songs to match. Much of the talk surrounding “La La Land” has, fittingly, been on its music, but the film itself is much more than just a musical. It is a love letter to classic Hollywood, a film for film lovers, with nostalgic references to the classic films of yesteryear scattered throughout.
Sebastian and Mia go to Griffith Observatory, featured prominently in “Rebel Without Cause,” dance through a perfectly choreographed “An American in Paris”-esque dream sequence, and talk about old films like “Bringing up Baby,” “Notorious,” and “Adam’s Rib.” There is one film in particular, whose presence you feel throughout: “Casablanca.”
‘Casablanca’ Tributes Beyond References
Outside of the dialogue, Ingrid Berman of “Casablanca” makes a few on-screen appearances in “La La Land,” painted on Mia’s bedroom wall and on a billboard. According to USA Today, Mia’s one-woman play was even about Bergman, although the scene was cut for time. But “La La Land” doesn’t just pay homage to the 1942 masterpiece with a handful of references: the storyline itself is a tribute to the Humphrey Bogart/Bergman film.
Sebastian goes to Mia’s on-studio coffee shop the night after they get acquainted, and as they walk out Mia points out a building across the street. “That’s the window that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looked out in Casablanca,” Mia informs Sebastian. At first glance it appears to be one of the many nods to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but it has a deeper meaning to the plot itself.
Paris plays an important role in “Casablanca.” It is where Rick (Bogart) and Ilsa (Bergman) fall in love, and, when their relationship ends, what both think back to for memories of happy times. That moment, when Sebastian decides to seek Mia out, signaled the start of their budding relationship, the beginning of their “Paris.”
A Few Light Spoilers Ahead
Sebastian and Mia fall in love, and are immensely happy together. But then, Mia gets a major role after a successful audition and, inverting “Casablanca,” goes to the real Paris to film, and Sebastian stays behind. Although Mia is in Paris, the Paris she had with Sebastian ends.
Five years later, we see Mia, now a successful actress, preparing for a night out with her husband. They get stuck in traffic, decide to scrap their plans, and pull off the highway for dinner. As they’re walking back to their car after dinner, Mia and her unnamed husband hear music coming from a nearby club. They enter, and while there’s no plane, no Nazis, no Captain Renault sitting in the corner, at its heart the next few minutes are “Casablanca.”
The club is named after its proprietor, Sebastian, but shortened to Seb’s like Richard was to Rick’s, whom Mia sees immediately upon walking in. Sebastian sees her too, and plays the song she had first heard him play, the song that served as their love theme throughout (their own “As Time Goes By”). As the music plays, she considers what might have been, and for a brief moment it seems like she may still love him and want to return to him (just like Ilsa).
But then the scene fades back to reality, the song ends, and Mia tells her husband she’s ready to leave. They get up and she shares one last, long glance with Sebastian. The two smile, and then Mia leaves.
Introducing a New Generation to Classic Film
“Casablanca” is one of the greatest films ever made, and the nods, winks, and parallels to the film throughout “La La Land” are the main reason it has that classic feel. This is, of course, just one contributing factor to the feeling of nostalgia. Everything from the set design to the dialogue contributes also. “La La Land” was even filmed in CinemaScope, the aspect ratio that enjoyed popularity during the 1950s and 1960s.
Rebecca Cusey reflected on the impact the 1940s innocence of Mia and Sebastian’s romance has on the film. It’s happy and sweet, a classic love story unlike anything Hollywood has had to offer us in recent years. And people are loving it. Despite a limited release in the United States, “La La Land” has already raked in $65 million, more than double its budget.
Damien Chazelle, the film’s writer and director, has done something incredible with “La La Land.” He’s introduced a whole generation of moviegoers to classic films, no small task, as my fellow millennials usually ignore films from classic Hollywood. The Philistines list a variety of reasons like the common and ever-annoying “it’s in black and white,” and would probably have ignored “La La Land” too. But the inclusion of megastars like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make the film appealing to those same people.
I saw “La La Land” with my little sister, who, to my eternal consternation, has always claimed “Mama Mia!” is the greatest musical ever made (not even the Broadway version, but the 2008 movie!) and groans when I suggest we watch “The Philadelphia Story.” Thanks to Chazelle, she has recanted, and is curious about the films that inspired her new favorite musical.
I think she isn’t alone in that curiosity. “La La Land” brings classic films to audiences in a way that no film has yet, introducing a whole new generation to the glitz and glamor of the silver screen, to the wit and wonder of the old movies they never bothered to watch. It’s fun, it’s nostalgic, and it’s beautiful in a way we haven’t seen in years.