(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for both 2016's La La Land and 2015's The Last Five Years)
#LaLaLand, Damien Chazelle’s musical tribute to Los Angeles and the Golden Era of Hollywood, is on a roll. The #EmmaStone and #RyanGosling fronted film swept at the Golden Globes, winning a record number of awards, and is a favorite to win big at the #Oscars as well. The film has received a great deal of attention, both in the form of ecstatic praise, as well as a rise in backlash.
Though there are considerable differences between the two, there is a great deal of overlap between La La Land and 2015’s #TheLastFiveYears, an adaptation of the stage musical starring #AnnaKendrick and #JeremyJordan. The two movie musicals both chronicle whirlwind relationships between creatives and the struggles of balancing love with the demands and disappointments of careers in music, movies, and literature. They also reach a similar conclusion, albeit in different ways.
Both are unique and contemporary movie musicals that focus closely on a couple — one, a bright, spectacular tribute to old-age Hollywood classics, the other an inventive, postmodern deconstruction of a relationship. How do the two films stack up against each other and what do they indicate about patterns in the genre?
The two stories are remarkably similar in theme and trajectory, though tonally, The Last Five Years is an emotional rollercoaster jerking between joy and despair, whereas La La Land is steadily pleasant throughout, with twinges of bittersweet. The Last Five Years chronicles the relationship between rising star novelist Jamie and struggling actress Cathy. While the two fall passionately in love, their ambitions and disproportionate successes put a strain on their marriage from which they are unable to recover. La La Land follows jazz pianist Sebastian and struggling actress Mia as they pursue their dreams and fall in love; though in the end, they cannot have both. While both films reach the same tragic conclusion, they take different approaches to get there.
La La Land is very much about the people who come to Los Angeles and hustle to see their dreams achieved. The romance between Mia and Sebastian is not unlike the magic of movies, music and art that we get swept up into. The movie is dreamy and hopeful, but doesn't gloss everything over — the traffic is bad, the industry is hard, the pressure to sell out or give up is mounting, and the couple doesn't always make it. Even though Mia and Sebastian don't end up together — and the film implies they couldn’t have both gotten what they wanted and stayed together — they do reach their goals. The film ends on a painfully wistful note, but the characters seem generally fulfilled.
The Last Five Years focuses more on the characters of Jamie and Cathy and the dynamics of their relationship. It is primarily devoted to unpacking these characters, their faults, the expectations they put on one another, the ways they fail to meet them, and, then, more peripherally, the way chasing their dreams affects it all. Unlike the realized dreams in La La Land, though Jamie reaches great success, Cathy never makes it as an actress and doesn’t have Mia’s last act big break. It’s a harsher, less romantic take (the cynical New York vs. La La Land’s sunny Los Angeles), but there’s real truth to it.
Both The Last Five Years and La La Land have groundbreaking elements that make them stand out among other movies.
As has been mentioned repeatedly, La La Land is unique in that the movie industry has been reluctant to greenlight original musicals for quite a while. While musicals have remained steadily successful on-screen, with the recent blockbuster adaptations of Les Miserables and Into the Woods and the growing popularity of live TV musicals such as Grease and Hairspray, there have been strikingly few #musicals made in recent memory that aren't adapted from proven Broadway hits. Chazelle began work on La La Land six years ago, but it wasn't until receiving acclaim for his electrifying film Whiplash that he was able to find a studio willing to produce an original, contemporary musical without compromising his vision.
The Last Five Years is adapted from an early 2000s stage musical written by Jason Robert Brown; however, his creative storytelling makes it a completely unique experience. The show is mostly point-of-view solos from Cathy and Jamie; however, Cathy's story is told in reverse chronological order and Jamie's is told in chronological order. Their perspectives only line up when their timelines intersect in the middle, around the time of their wedding. Watching Cathy start at the unhappy end of their marriage and Jamie at the ecstatic beginning, and following them until they are both on the opposite side is a fascinating way to depict a relationship and puts its demise and each individual's hand in that into a perspective that would otherwise not be conveyed.
Both La La Land and The Last Five Years rely heavily on their lead couples, and all four actors are tremendous in their roles. Gosling, Stone and Kendrick are all Academy Award nominees, and Jordan has a Tony nomination under his belt.
Kendrick and Jordan both give stellar performances, deftly managing the ups and downs of their characters’ respective arcs. Due to the musical’s unique structure, they are essentially the only characters and the two of them carry the entire film.
However, Stone and Gosling have the slight edge. The La La Land co-stars have the advantage of a long-running partnership that results in unmatched charm and chemistry on-screen. They have scenes full of banter and dialogue that are absent from The Last Five Years, which endear the audience to Mia and Sebastian and their blossoming relationship. The Last Five Years dwells primarily inside the characters' heads, with all their flaws and fears, while La La Land creates something beautiful and dreamy to draw us in, to fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other.
Music is one of the primary ways in which the two films diverge.
The Last Five Years is appropriately Broadway, having been adapted from a stage production. Clever lyrics and creative arrangements frame expert storytelling, as everything about Cathy, Jamie, their relationship, and their respective careers must be conveyed through song. Kendrick and Jordan are the superior vocalists by far, belting with strong stage pipes and tackling really challenging runs with expert skill.
La La Land has fewer songs, but they are more translatable, whereas the songs of The Last Five Years are very specific to the characters and their circumstances. Inspired by the classic musicals of old Hollywood, the La La Land soundtrack is full of sweeping, memorable melodies and lively numbers, along with plenty of jazz. However, as many critics have noted, Gosling and Stone aren’t the strongest vocalists. The raw, live sound that Hurwitz and Chazelle cultivate is intentional, and it works, but it can’t quite compare to Kendrick and Jordan’s professional expertise.
La La Land, with its striking costumes, dazzling sets and sweeping cinematography, is a lavish visual spectacle. It's an unabashed musical, where people break into song and dance and float away into the stars and owe no justification to reality. Damien Chazelle's use of long takes and winding shots in tandem creates an experience that feels live, crackling with energy and authenticity, while on a grand scope. As with the vocals, Stone and Gosling are not the sort of dancers that graced Hollywood of yore, but their imperfections lend to their charm and accessibility. Chazelle shoots the scenes in a comprehensive way that also adds to the feeling of watching a whole performance, rather than employing quick cuts and busyness.
The Last Five Years is shot more like a documentary, with a shaky-cam style that follows the characters closely as they move around the scenes. La La Land's camera movements all feel as intentional as it's choreography, but the cinematography of The Last Five Years comes across as spontaneous, real, and as intimate as the story itself.
Both movies feature striking, heartbreaking ending scenes that briefly dip out of the confines of reality. La La Land flashes forward to reveal a happily married and successful Mia happening on Sebastian's jazz club. Though they don't speak, they revisit their whirlwind romance with a fantasy dance sequence in which everything in their relationship went right and they had stayed together. It's a dazzling, tragic, but beautiful sequence that pays tribute to the one that got away.
The Last Five Years ends Jamie's narrative with him leaving her, and ends Cathy's narrative with her having just met him. The scenes are played simultaneously, so a morose Jamie sings goodbye to an overjoyed Cathy, who is singing goodbye until tomorrow. It's a fascinating concept for a scene, a beautiful song, and it's played brilliantly by Kendrick and Jordan.
The Last Five Years is an intimate and close-up perspective of a relationship, told completely out of order, in snapshots. La La Land is a grand, flowing spectacle, traditional in storytelling, but fresh and contemporary in the story it tells. Both draw from their respective genres — Broadway and classic Hollywood musicals — and aim to reinvent them. Thanks to these movies we may be seeing more present day-set musicals that are risky, original and unafraid to be both bitter and sweet.
What is your favorite musical?