Singing, Dancing, and Flamethrowing: The Parallels Between Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and La La Land
You might think it’s absurd to point out the similarities between the films La La Land and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood because, well… what could they possibly have in common? One is a break-into-song musical in the style of MGM technicolor extravaganzas from the 1940s and ’50s and the other is an ode to showbiz circa 1969 by way of the Spaghetti Western. One is draped in colored lights and chiffon, the other in dark, grimy leather chaps. One has a soundtrack of original piano show tunes, the other has a rock score curated from the vaults of KHJ radio.
They could not possibly look and feel more different… but are they? The more I thought about them, the more parallels emerged, especially when viewed through the STC! genre and story microscopes. I’ve been wanting to write about La La Land again, and I wanted to write about Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood almost immediately, so this is an opportunity to do both. The process reminded me how Blake Snyder’s methods of investigating narrative never fail to illuminate fundamental laws of storytelling. Beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Most film critics would place the musical and the western into their own distinct genres, but not Blake Snyder, or any of us here at Save the Cat! We have our own genre system based on story premise, not style. The story of La La Land (LLL) chronicles the perils and sacrifices encountered by co-protagonists trying to break into showbiz where failure means psychological death. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (OUATIH) chronicles the perils and sacrifices encountered by co-protagonists trying to maintain showbiz careers after a certain age where any misstep has the potential to unravel it all: another psychological death.
Their genres, from an STC! perspective, are the same: they are “Rites of Passage” stories (ROPs) where the first is a young person’s maturation passage (Makin’ It!) and the second is a mid-life crisis passage (Fear of Losin’ It!). LLL is conceived by a young artist, a Hollywood outsider, trying to break in, as Damien Chazelle was (more or less) at the time of its making, and OUATIH is told from a much older man’s perspective, a consummate Hollywood insider, with a monumental reputation at stake every time he takes a swing with his creative bat: Quentin Tarantino. Both films are deeply authentic personal expressions of highly skilled writer/directors who have earned the mantle of “auteur.”
Both films also have love stories at their center. LLL is a classic boy-meets-girl romance (Mia/Sebastian played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling); OUATIH is a classic comrade-in-arms bromance (Rick Dalton/Cliff Booth played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt)—and each story has a third character that threatens the relationship, though it’s not a person, but the setting in which they operate: the threat is Hollywood itself with its specific brand of pressures, temptations, fortified walls, and ruthless judgments.
When the threat is a context, particularly a specialized cultural or professional context in which a story is set, we are in the realm of the “Institutionalized” genre. Both LLL and OUATIH have Rites of Passage as their primary genre, with supporting genres of “Buddy Love/Professional Love” and Institutionalized, where the Institution being dissected is the pitiless Hollywood machine. The two films are firmly fixed in the same genre bedrock.
If the western and the musical are not different genres, then what are they, exactly? I would call them different “styles.” The term style encompasses a lot, including story aspects like setting, character types, situations, locations, and props, but also how those things look, feel, and interact. Through repeated use many elements become codified to become more or less expected by audiences, and these are called “conventions.”
We know a musical by its conventions just as we know a western by its conventions. Certainly LLL and OUATIH employ vastly different conventions, which is the main reason they look and feel so dissimilar. But before I address how each filmmaker treats their conventions, I want to point out that there is a “third style” also in evidence, and the two films share it: the “behind-the-scenes showbiz story” about performers where performance itself, and its quality—good and bad—is central to the plot.
LLL is a literal “backstage musical” about the relationship between a musician/composer and an actor/writer, and OUATIH is a “backstage western” about the relationship between an actor in western TV shows and his stuntman (another kind of actor). The high wire act of “putting on a show” is central to both stories, and both films have multiple shows within shows. Both filmmakers revel in poking fun at the absurdities, humiliations, demands, and rewards of performance in these “backstage showbiz” segments; it’s the primary focus of their critique of this “Institution” they both know so well and love (and loathe!) so much.
FUN & GAMES
Blake Snyder defined “Fun & Games” as the specific sequence in a film where it delivers on its stylistic expectations. He considered this an actual structure step and noted that it usually happens at the beginning of Act Two with its trailer moments and set pieces and where the story delivers on the promise of the premise. But when a filmmaker chooses to play with a particular style from start to finish, and when that style remains front and center and touches every creative decision the artist makes, then Fun & Games is more than a structure step; it’s baked into the story’s DNA.
Both Damien Chazelle and Quentin Tarantino love movies, possess inordinate knowledge of cinema, and are totally fluent in the conventions of the styles in which they’re working. Throughout their films both filmmakers employ the most recognizable moments of each style, the true iconography, and update and reinterpret them to make something fresh and new. There’s an ever present undercurrent of exuberant relish emanating from the filmmaker’s delight in his own invention.
Both films are deeply self-aware and operate on the level of “loving homage” more deeply than most films, and this is a wellspring of much of the prodigious creative energy on display. The attitude of the filmmakers to their material is virtually the same: it is simultaneously serious and playful. And fun. And games. It is playfulness as an auteurist mandate.
The relationship of the two co-protagonists is central to both films, and here we find more parallels. In LLL, Mia is an insecure actor. We see that she’s quite good in various auditions, but this goes wholly unnoticed by everyone except Sebastian, who has unquestioned faith in her. In OUATIH, Rick is an insecure actor. We see that he’s quite good, in past shows and film clips, but he’s hardly heralded for his talent. He’s a little desperate and only his best friend and personal assistant (oh, and occasional stunt man), Cliff, has unquestioned faith in him.
Furthermore, both Sebastian and Cliff have unquestioned faith in themselves. Even when their futures are dim and unclear, they can face that uncertainty totally secure in who they are and what they have to offer. Seb appears to be one of the most accomplished musicians on the planet, and a brilliant composer, and proves to be a really good dude. Cliff is quite simply one of the coolest characters ever created in modern cinema; someone who can hold his own in any dangerous situation (even a much criticized face-off with Bruce Lee), but like Seb, essentially a good dude with a good heart.
Both Seb and Cliff share a fundamental decency and the ability to set their own egos aside, and they provide the crucial source of support that allows their partners to achieve ultimate success. They are the “other” that makes their partner complete. In both films, it’s Mia and Rick who have the greater character arcs because they each push through greater internal obstacles (namely, insecurity and frustration), but Seb and Cliff also have goals that get resolved—and also a nearly equal amount of screen time and story emphasis—so for me each film is a co-protagonist “two-hander.”
CLIMAX OF GAIN AND LOSS
For me, the most surprising way that these two films are alike, and perhaps the most unusual way and powerful way (since it creates a similar emotional effect for the audience leaving the theater), is how each treats its climax: both films present an alternate universe with an alternate ending from what is known up to that point. LLL, since it is entirely fictional, relies only on itself as a reference point for the two alternatives.
OUATIH, on the other hand, takes place at a particular moment in history and dramatizes an extremely infamous event known by all. Everyone watching the movie knows where the movie is likely headed—to the night of the Manson murders of Sharon Tate and her friends—and everyone knows the horrific outcome of that night all too well. Informed audiences bring this knowledge to the theater with them, and it imbues the film with an enormous amount of tension from the beginning. History itself is a reference point for the two alternatives.
In the third act of LLL, we discover that lovers Mia and Sebastian have gone their separate ways, only for them to experience a chance encounter at Seb’s successful jazz club while he is on stage three years later. He sees Mia in the audience—presumably the first time he has seen her since she departed for Paris and returned a movie star and built a life without him. At the beginning of this sequence, we perceive that the Rites of Passage genre has been resolved: they both have “made it” as they defined for themselves earlier in the story. It also resolves the Institutionalized genre, as they have both “joined” their respective systems (jazz world and film world) in a way that works for them.
But what of the Buddy Love genre? They’re not together, as we have come to root for. How will that resolve? It is still an open question as Seb sits at the piano and starts playing something Mia recognizes as their theme song (the song “City of Stars”). This establishes a psychic connection and allows him to communicate to her—and only her—through his music, and thus the film’s climax begins, a sequence where they share a dream-vision together.
Here we see how life might have gone had things shifted ever so slightly in the past, and at the end of this dream ballet/production number (a story choice that is the ultimate homage to the classical musical style of Hollywood’s heyday) we see a new present where they are still together, a family now, happy and fulfilled. When the music ends and we return to “reality” (the actual present in the film), we understand, just through a series of looks between them, that this dream-vision is his gift to her, and that she has received it and recognizes it as beautiful—though it’s only a dream, she is happy to have it. Mia leaves, Seb returns to his life without her, The End.
The feeling created is overwhelmingly bittersweet: sweet, because we saw how they experienced this alternate ending together, which is a triumph; bitter, because these two artists we were rooting so hard to remain a couple could not find a way to create a successful enduring relationship, even though they were so well-matched and went on to create individual success for themselves.
And that individual success is another triumph, and another triumph they can share from afar, in spite of the fact that the very showbiz in which they triumphed is the thing that ultimately kept them apart. More bitterness. The levels of bittersweetness are deep, varied, and intense. This is the kind of narrative dexterity from an inspired storyteller that makes audience members cry. I know I did.
To use Blake Snyder’s terminology, the mechanics of the climax (or the Finale beat) is a textbook example of creating convergence/synthesis in order to arrive at transformation. The dream sequence is a condensed, heightened, and intensified recapitulation of the entire story up to that point, and uses all of the music we’ve already heard (thus reprising both action and music), and all to a new purpose: to create something new—the shared dream both ex-lovers can treasure forever.
The Finale also shows the power of the passionate artist acting in his purest capacity: Seb may not be able to change history, but through his art he can create a new future for them both—a future where they honor and celebrate what they once had, and might have had, creating a powerful sense of closure for them which is profoundly positive.
It’s a musical love letter that changes everything, and it finally resolves the Buddy Love genre. They’re not together, and that’s okay, because… they’ll always have this: their memory of their time together, and a shared vision that might have been which they can also both treasure forever (which is actually a subtle homage to Casablanca, another film classic this movie references: “We’ll always have Paris,” Bogie says to Bergman). It is transformational in the deepest sense, emotionally and psychologically speaking. What could be a more fitting climax and resolution to a film called La La Land which is, start to finish, a love letter to Hollywood itself?
OUATIH is completely different and yet similar in fundamental ways, and the levels of bittersweetness it creates are every bit as complex and profound. First and foremost, just like LLL, it is, start to finish, a love letter to Hollywood, though it focuses on a very precise moment in history, the changing of the guard where one era transmutes into the next. And just like LLL, there is an alternate ending in an alternate universe—in this case, not a different take on the fictional universe we’ve already seen, but a different take on history itself.
In OUATIH, Sharon Tate, her baby and her friends do not die: they are saved by the strange circumstances and the unfolding action in the “Tarantinoverse.” And as in LLL, the climax is where the art of convergence/synthesis is crucial, because in order for the ending to work, for it to be surprising but perfectly plausible, everything must be carefully set up in advance. And all of it is: the flamethrower, the LSD-laced cigarette, the Manson gang’s recognition of Rick’s identity, the fact that Cliff had a previous encounter with Tex and the other gang members, Cliff’s poise under pressure and his elite combat skills—and most importantly, Brandy, the combat K-9 kill dog. Every detail plays an essential part for the spectacular mayhem to unfold with a sense of inevitability, a recapitulation of character, situation, and even prop in a convergence to bring about the transformation.
For any of this to resonate emotionally, however, Tarantino had to make us fall in love with Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth in the first place, and to totally root for their relationship (as Damien Chazelle did with his central relationship in LLL), and also to make us fall in love with Sharon Tate. In my estimation, he succeeds brilliantly. But ultimately, the bittersweetness of the ending is almost crushing.
The feeling of bittersweetness is created when both gains and losses, success and failure, triumph and tragedy are presented at the same time. No triumph exists without some cost, and when the cost feels greater than the triumph then sadness is what endures. The ending of OUATIH has numerous tangible triumphs. There is, in fact, a conclusive triumph in all three genres—and all three triumphs are accomplished in a single gesture: a hug.
When the (now surviving) Sharon Tate invites Rick Dalton into her circle of friends, the Rites of Passage story is complete. Rick (and by extension, Cliff) has catapulted out of the loser camp smack into the middle of the coolest kids in town, resolving the mid-life crisis problem. And since Rick had only moments before realized how important Cliff is to him, but wasn’t exactly sure how he would manage things moving forward, walking through the fairy tale gates and being received openly by the queen of cool also resolves the Buddy Love genre—now we’re sure that Rick and Cliff will continue working together and are going to be much more successful than they ever thought possible (likely to emulate the stellar career paths of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, the primary models for these characters).
And finally, the Institutionalized genre is also resolved: with total acceptance by the cool kids, they have truly “joined” the upper echelons where success is assured. Thoughts of “burning it down” or “suicide” (the other primary outcomes in stories about institutions) can be left behind. Rick and Cliff are back on the ladder to success. These massive transformations for the better are profoundly sweet. And yet…
Reality persists. There’s no changing the fact that Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered in real life. This is a horrendous, immutable fact. In the wake of all the triumph we’ve just experienced, reality sets in. It’s a colossal failure—a pitiless fate. It’s a cost almost too much to bear. The audience wants the fairy tale outcome, the QT version of events, but it is never to be.
Only in fiction. Only in the movies will the Manson family demons get shredded by a pit bull and fried by a flamethrower. And here also, just like LLL, we see the power of the passionate artist acting in his purest capacity to attempt to alter history to make things better—just like Seb did for himself and Mia.
In this case the passionate artist is Quentin Tarantino, and as skilled as he is, he can’t change history. Regardless of the fictional triumphs, history delivers the bitterest of knock-out punches. He knows this is a fairy tale, announced right there in the film’s title, and at the closing credits, the audience knows it, too—because the reality they return to is far different, far worse: the Manson murders happened. We live in an imperfect, compromised world. Many of the greatest works of narrative art deliver the same message.
I was sad for many, many days after seeing this film, even as I loved imagining the ultimate showbiz dream success of these two flawed dudes in their fictional Hollywood. Not many stories conclude with transformations of that intensity and complexity. In recent years, I can think of only these two: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and La La Land.
They are great films, true works of art, conceived and executed by master storytellers at the highest level, sharing rarified cinematic air. Despite all their surface differences, to me they are more alike than not, and both captured my attention and imagination like few films ever have.
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