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The Language of Dance in the “La La Land” Movie

One of the basic human needs that most people satisfy every day is communication. There are many interesting ways of communication, and each of them is suitable for different situations. As an art form, dance is an extremely powerful, though not so obvious form of communication. According to Karkou et al., the language of dance is very similar to verbal language (100). Movements can express various emotions, feelings, ideas, and even represent a certain culture, place, religion, and time. The purpose of this paper is to describe how movement is used to portray the intention and theme of the movie La La Land (2016) and to contextualize the time in which the film was produced. Also, the male gaze concept and heteronormativity of the dance will be analyzed and discussed.

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About the Movie

La La Land is a dance narrative film directed by Damien Chazelle and released in 2016. The quality and passion of this movie are so high that Neher even says that “it is, in some ways, a musical about musicals” (1). This movie tells a fascinating story of two desperate dreamers – Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia is a struggling actress who works as a barista in a small café next to one of the Los Angeles movie studios.

She goes to auditions and, although she never gets the part, she does not lose hope and continues dreaming of being an actress. Sebastian is a wonderful pianist who holds on to an old ideal version of jazz and wants to open his jazz club. These two dreamers meet and, after some scenes, fall in love with each other (La La Land). One may say that this is just an ordinary love story, but vibrant colors and passionate dances make this movie an outstanding Hollywood masterpiece.

Analysis of the First Scene

In this paper, two different dancing scenes from La La Land will be analyzed to understand how movement expresses the emotions of characters and the intention and theme of the movie. The first one to be analyzed is the opening scene (0:35–4:40).

It is hard to deny that in every movie, an opening scene is significant as it usually sets the tone for the rest of the film. The same may be said about La La Land as its opening scene is very bright, energetic, and promising. As the movie begins, the audience sees a huge traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway with hundreds of cars and tired, annoyed people. One can say that the opening scene shows the truth about most people – they live in a dream and love fantasizing (La La Land). People are separated from each other, sitting in their cars, listening to music, minding their own business.

Suddenly, a woman gets off her car and starts dancing and singing right in the middle of the traffic jam. Some seconds later, many people join her, and so the energetic dance begins. This dance unites people of all ages, religions, and races; it deletes any differences between people. Their movements are flying, energetic, whirling, and full of life and happiness. It is pretty noticeable that during all the dance, people continuously raise their hands, point, and look at the sky. Undoubtedly, these movements and gestures indicate that people need freedom, fantasies, dreams (La La Land). They want to rise just like the sun and achieve what at first glance seems unachievable.

Analysis of the Second Scene

One more dancing scene to be discussed in this paper is the first dance of Mia and Sebastian (33:20–36:10). In this scene, they are walking along a street and stop to look at the sunset. The dancing part starts slowly with Sebastian and Mia singing and funnily parodying each other’s movements. At first, it seems that they are challenging each other while dancing as their moves are mostly abrupt.

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A few moments later, the viewers can watch the young dreamers falling in love through their dance. Their movements are gentle and sharp at the same time, and one may suppose that this is because Mia and Sebastian are confused about their feelings and want to hide them (La La Land). Also, their harmonious movements that continue and complete each other show that the young people are finally achieving mutual understanding.

The Male Gaze Concept

Several concepts are exemplified in this scene, and the first one to be discussed is the male gaze. The male gaze is a key idea of feminist film theory that can be identified as a process of sexualizing women for male viewers. One can notice that in the opening scene of La La Land, the number of men and women is equal. They all dance, the camera is not focused only on the female dancers. Although most women in this scene wear short dresses and skirts, this is not represented as something sexual. However, some movements that women make are specific: they bend beautifully and smoothly, jump up so that the dress lifts, lie down on the hood of the car.

Still, the camera moves so fast that a male viewer cannot concentrate on any of these women’s movements. Although, the last part of this scene may be an example of the male gaze. When the dance is almost over, the camera catches a woman in a revealing summer dress whose movements attract the attention of the male viewers.

The second scene does not demonstrate the male gaze concept. The dance between Mia and Sebastian is so gentle, sincere, and romantic that there is no way Mia can be sexualized. Gabbard says that Damien Chazelle, La La Land director, wanted to “show real people going from ordinary speech and movement to song and dance without ceasing to be the same complex individuals they were before” (95). As the purposes of this scene were completely innocent and sincere, the male gaze concept is not demonstrated here.

The Heteronormativity Concept

The second concept to be discussed is the heteronormativity of the dance. The heteronormativity of the dance prescribes that a man’s dance partner can only be a woman, not another man; the same goes for women. This concept is exemplified in both scenes described in this paper. In the opening scene, people mostly dance on their own, but sometimes someone finds a partner for a couple of movements, and this partner is always of the opposite sex. In the second scene with Mia and Sebastian’s dance, it is all obvious – their dance is entirely heteronormative.

The Time of the Movie

It is essential to say that the time in La La Land is mixed. The story takes place in modern Los Angeles, but the audience can feel the presence of the 50s. The title of the movie has two interesting hidden meanings. Firstly, “La La Land” is a nickname for “Los Angeles,” probably, that is why the story takes place in this very city. Secondly, “lalaland” means “to be out of touch with reality,” in other words, to live in a dream, in one’s world.

Being Lalaland – this is what connects the movie, its characters, and situations with the real world. Moreover, the year of the movie release, 2016, was also the year of presidential elections in the United States. Most people hoped that the one who they voted for would win; it was a hard year for almost everyone in America. This fact means that the Americans and La La Land characters are connected by their hopes for a bright future.

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To conclude, one may say that dance narrative films are not just for entertaining the audience. These films are like a separate kind of art and have a special place in cinematography. If to watch it carefully and analyze the dance scenes, the viewer may be able to understand much more than just from the plot and dialogs. The dance language is a passionate, sincere, energetic way for people to exchange their feelings, emotions, thoughts. Undoubtedly, dance scenes in La La Land play a significant role, and sometimes express much more than any other language can.

Works Cited

Gabbard, Krin. “La La Land Is a Hit, but Is It Good for Jazz?” Daedalus, vol. 148, no. 2, 2019, pp. 92-103.

Karkou, Vassiliki, et al. The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing. Oxford University Press, 2017.

La La Land. Directed by Damien Chazelle, performances by Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and John Legend, Lionsgate Films, 2016.

Neher, Erick. “Signifiers on Parade: La La Land and the Movie Musical.” The Hudson Review, vol. 70, no. 1, 2019.

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