La La Land (2016)

Director: Damien Chazelle
CastEmma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Genre: Musical, Romance, Drama

There’s a lot to be nostalgic in this day and age, as the year of 2017 arrives: the idealism of bygone eras where most people weren’t as cynical as they are now, a time when it didn’t feel like the world had gone to hell, the golden age of film when there were no arguments over whether cinema was dead. No movie better captures the comforting feeling of nostalgia better than Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a thrilling musical that soars with every ambitious step it takes but simultaneously is grounded by its small, quiet moments. Taking inspiration from the musicals of Old Hollywood, Chazelle infuses the romantic grandeur that made those films so iconic and successful with the grittiness that has defined contemporary films. The film doesn’t shy away from its corny and earnest roots but doesn’t feel fake or like it merely exists to pay homage to films like Singin’ in the Rain.

Mia (Emma Stone at her fearless best) is an aspiring actress stuck in the cycle of audition and rejection. As she walks home from a lavish casting part one night, her attention is caught by a strangely familiar tune emanating from a restaurant. She walks in and sees Sebastian (an imperfectly perfect Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist, at the piano. Their eyes meet, as the lights dim and the chatter of the people talking around them fades into the background. The moment is ruined by his manager, who castigates and fires Sebastian for not sticking to the Christmas music book. His ego bruised, Sebastian pointedly shuns Mia as he walks past her, ignoring her empathetic look.

La La Land is a romance, after all, so it’s not long before the lives of the two leads cross paths again. Mia and Seb fall in love, naturally, in between tap-dancing against the backdrop of the gorgeously hazy Los Angeles skyline and re-enacting Rebel Without a Cause. The euphoria of falling in love is perfectly captured as the film blurs the lines between reality and the absurd. The film is at its best when it ventures beyond what is “real”, both due to the sheer unexpectedness of what it aims to do and its flawless execution. Propelled by Justin Hurwitz’s soaring melodies, which transports us into the emotions of Mia and Seb, watching this film is just as exhilarating as watching the most intense of action movies.

But life is not all about being in love, and La La Land is just as much a romance between an artist and their art as it is a love story between two people. We get to know Mia and Sebastian through their flirtations and their eventual romance, but it is their tumultuous relationships with their artistic passions that humanizes them. Mia struggles with her belief in herself and her ambition to become an actress as she continually gets rejected from casting directors. Seb is frustrated with the lifeless state of modern jazz, and is tempted by an enticing job offer that would enable him financial comfort but would force him to play the kind of jazz he despises. They look to the past in their ambitions and dreams of the future: Seb wants to open an old-school jazz bar named after an iconic jazz musician, and Mia wants to star in films like Casablanca that will launch her to Grace Kelly-like prestige. Both reflect Chazelle and La La Land itself in the desire to capture the magic of a long-ago time in the modern world.

Despite their mutual yearning for the past, there’s a fundamental difference in Mia and Seb’s ambitions. Mia wants a life of Hollywood fame and stardom. All Seb wants to do is maintain the purity of jazz, a far cry from the artificiality of Hollywood. Suddenly, though, they get what the other craves—Seb becomes famous but does so by selling out to join a popular band, and Mia writes and stars in a one-woman play that is true to herself but doesn’t get the audience she so desires. They’ve both unknowingly moved away not only from their nostalgia-tinged ambitions, but from each other. It’s in this realization of their divergent dreams that there is a distinct tonal shift in the film, transitioning from being loud and exciting to being somber and fraught. Warm purple-red hues and bright colours shift to dark, blue-green tones. But La La Land is no less powerful in its quieter moments, and watching Mia and Seb bitterly try to reconcile their place in each other’s lives with their ambitions is just as captivating as watching them dance amongst the stars of the Griffith Observatory.

Just when we think the film is quietly coming to a close, Chazelle reveals another ace up his sleeve in the epilogue, which finds Mia and Seb five years from their parting. It’s as good of an ending as a film will ever have; intoxicating, heartstopping, honest and bittersweet. It’s one that will stick in the mind for a long time, and will make you ponder, cry, and mourn. Hurwitz’s final track threads together the incredibly catchy melodies from each song in a musical explosion of feeling and sensation—listening to it is like reliving the epilogue and the range of emotions it brings forth. In a film full of spectacular scenes and montages, La La Land’s epilogue is its very best.

In less capable hands, the two leads could be perceived as boring, stock characters—struggling but talented artists have been well-explored in film—but the charm and charisma of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, along with Chazelle’s witty and emotionally resonant scriptwriting, transform the characters from stereotypes to real, lived in characters beyond the specificity of their circumstances. Stone is the clear standout of the two; she’s given most of the emotional and comedic weight and the narrative is more often told from Mia’s perspective. She transitions between comedy and drama effortlessly, and her diversity of talents have never been more evident. Gosling is no slouch either, and he’s charming and likeable even though the character of Sebastian is a little underdeveloped compared to Mia.

Neither are perfect at singing or dancing (there have been criticisms that Chazelle should have gotten actors more talented in those respects), but it’s not as if their characters are professional singers or dancers, and Stone and Gosling’s charm and acting talents more than make up for it. Chazelle doesn’t try to hide their occasional faults with autotune and editing magic either, which adds to the realism of the film hiding underneath its shiny, polished exterior. Their chemistry together, as always, is palpable. The most heartstopping cinematic romances are played by actors who can communicate worlds to each other with just a look and a glance, and the relationship between Mia and Seb, as well as La La Land’s ending shot, would be nowhere near as powerful without Stone and Gosling’s rapport.

La La Land is an electrifying, astonishing piece of cinema. Like the very best films, watching it is an experience, rather than a mundane task. Chazelle makes us yearn for a time when life was less complicated and people were dreamers like Mia and Sebastian. But, La La Land says, there must be a compromise between the past and the present—we can’t live in the past. We can take inspiration from it, but eventually we must move on. Here’s to 2017.

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2 comments

  1. Didn’t try to hide their faults with auto-tune? I heard clear auto-tuning 11 minutes into the movie in the second number, and that’s when I stopped watching. I’ll never watch a musical with auto-tuning, it just completely ruins any possible enjoyment I might have had.

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    1. Fair enough, I was probably a bit too generous re: the auto-tuning. I don’t fault them for doing so though, I don’t think it’s any different from editing a scene to artificially increase its impact, for example. I do know that they did make a concerted effort to film some of their musical numbers live or in one take, with minor edits in the final cut, for what it’s worth.

      That’s an interesting perspective on auto-tuning in musicals. I would argue that the musical genre is defined by artifice, so to me auto-tune doesn’t take away from my experience of the movie (or any other musical in which it is used, which I assume is most of them). Again comparing it to editing, I wouldn’t expect a film not to use editing to hide acting faults.

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