La La Land: Did I La-La-Love It or Did It La-La-Lose Me?
Going into the film La La Land, I had a narrow understanding of what it was exactly going to be. Previews did very little to let on that that the film was going to be a musical, and not much was hinted-at in the way of a plot. It looked colorful and magical and that was all I had to go on. The imagery must have captured me somehow because I knew immediately that I wanted to see it. When I learned that it was, in fact, a musical, I was all-the-more interested in this intangible La La Land.
What the film La La Land accomplishes is to scrape the oily patina from the modern perception of Hollywood, and revitalize this seedy land of hopes and shattered dreams to its once lustrous technicolor magic. You see, La La Land is more about the Hollywood of our distant memory, and even though the action is in a contemporary setting, the way the piece is designed, told, and filmed pays homage to the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s where backdrops were grander, the lighting brighter, and the studio system the almighty masters of glamorous storytelling. It was a world where musicals were possible on and off screen, where dancing in the streets was not only plausible, but inevitable.
The most startling part of this movie is how director Damien Chazelle paints that old Hollywood nostalgia while remaining technically planted in 2016. In each musical sequence, it’s as if the grime and smog of Los Angeles just fall away and we are suddenly in a modern pastiche of film noir, MGM musicals, Warner Brothers dramas, or a Busby Berkeley kaleidoscope. It’s a loving tribute to, not necessarily old Hollywood movies per se, but what they stood for: the vessel by which a manufactured world of stars and character actors, chorus girls and dancing boys, directors and designers could cast a spell on audiences through a heightened sense of reality. The keys to escapism.
At it’s core, La La Land has a very simple plot: an actress (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) are both struggling to succeed in Hollywood. She is a talented actress, extremely versatile (as we witness through her multitude of auditions), but whose talents are dismissed by callous and, frankly, despicable casting directors. He is an old-school musician, a traditionalist whose biggest dream is to open his own club where he can exalt his musical heroes of the classical world of jazz. It isn’t until the two meet that their fates begin to ignite, and, for better or worse, they become each other’s impetus for taking the bolder steps that lead to their dreams coming true. If, in the end, they must choose success over each other for that to happen, it’s an O. Henry kind of sacrifice that is all-the-more heart-wrenching in La La Land’s final sequence, a beautifully-crafted musical montage that imagines “what if?” they could have had it all.
Emma Stone plays the actress Mia and she is all things: charming, vulnerable, spunky, determined, and universally relatable. She is the beating heart at the center of La La Land and will most-assuredly be rewarded with an Oscar nomination for her efforts. Ryan Gosling as the musician Sebastian is a deeply complex character, a self-admitted “pain-in-the-ass” who has his own charms, but who is very conservative in sharing them. Gosling has never appealed to me as an actor in the way that most people adore him, but this film may just be what changes my mind about his warmth and abilities. It is easily his most nuanced work and he, too, will most-likely find himself nominated. When Gosling and Stone are together, they sparkle in that old-fashioned, classic movie romance, way that is exactly what is needed in La La Land.
The score of La La Land is an interesting collage and not exactly typical where musicals are concerned. Justin Hurwitz spins some haunting melodies and the Broadway composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen) have crafted some evocative lyrics, but the score is a less-integrated experience than it is a running emotional commentary on the action. The vibrant “Another Day of Sun” kicks off the festivities as drivers caught in an L.A. traffic jam leave their cars and celebrate the sun-kissed world they inhabit. The two finest songs are the mesmerizing “City of Stars”, sung a handful of times by Gosling with a touch of heartsick melancholy, and Stone’s audition monologue “The Fools Who Dream”, the raison d'être of every artist, a justification for their madness and vision. Plan on hearing both of these ditties over and over again in the coming year. Every cabaret performer and person auditioning will have soon filed them away in their minds as possibilities for their repertoire. It would be nice if the songs grew a bit more out of the characters’ experiences, but there are moments where they do and in those instances, the music starts to dig deeper into our hearts. In general, however, it’s the images married to the songs that linger, and not the songs themselves.
What resonates the most about La La Land is how it champions an appreciation and understanding for the classics in film and music, revering history as the foundation and inspiration for where we have evolved to. Conversely, it also appeals to those of us who are mired in the past and asks us to examine how evolution is necessary for the arts, the means for their survival. Thematically, the film demonstrates the reciprocity between new and old, convention and creation, and makes a case for their coexistence to everyone’s reward. It’s about who we were and who we are, where we’ve been and where we are going. La La Land may just be the most original film of the year thanks to that unique understanding, a perspective that so many of us seem to overlook in favor of one way of thinking over another.