La La Land (2016, dir. Damien Chazelle)
Two aspiring young people in Los Angeles, Mia and Seb pursue their individual dreams and their paths continually cross. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress who seems to never get a callback to a single audition and when she does she’s dismissed before getting a chance to read. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who wants to live up to the quality of his idols but ends up playing Christmas carols at a cozy dinner spot in the evenings. The duo isn’t sure if they want to be a couple and the story is rife with an interesting variety of musical styles, many reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein.
La La Land is unashamedly a musical. The opening moments are a sweeping crane shot of a traffic-jammed freeway where the motorists depart their vehicles for a song and dance number that evoke a slick Gap commercial. Eventually, the music settles down when the story of Mia and Seb comes into focus, and we don’t really get a showstopping number for the rest of the pictures. Instead, we have duets that appear to have been filmed in very intimate and loose ways. The piano duet of “City of Stars” has the actors sharing a piano bench and it’s obvious that Gosling flubs a couple lines eliciting a chuckle from Stone.
Director Chazelle paints his film in Cinemascope, a 2:35:1 aspect ratio that evokes the iconography of 1950s studio cinema. Set pieces embrace artifice with stages covered in grass apparent as the two soft shoe across them. There are fantastic flights of fancy, particularly during a date to the Griffith Observatory, where Mia and Seb end up waltzing across the galaxy. The whole tone of and look of the picture doesn’t so much as resemble Singin’ in the Rain, but rather films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It’s a very stylized French palette, especially in the film’s dreamlike final number. In fact, the film feels much more of a tribute to dance once it gets past its opening numbers than old Hollywood Musicals.
The weight of the film rests on the shoulders of Gosling and Stone. There are supporting characters, but the film refrains from developing any b plots. We have Gosling’s sister and just the lightest touch of her engagement and subsequent marriage. There’s Stone’s trio of fellow actress roommates who show up for a bit but then fade from the story. It never feels like sloppy writing, though. The intent that this is Mia and Seb’s story feels tightly focused. The chemistry between the leads is excellent. They seem like a real couple, and a scene that serves as the pivot in the plot shows just how real this relationship can feel. We’re witness to such an intimate, cringing personal argument between the two. The choking back of tears, the narrowing of eyes in anger, words spoken to cut deep then immediately regretted. Painfully real.
What I loved most about La La Land was the theme of compromise threaded throughout. The opening number, “Another Day of Sun” might have the tone of an upbeat, showstopping musical number but a closer listen to the lyrics reveals the central conflict of the film:
I think about that day
I left him at a Greyhound station
West of Santa Fé
We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true
Still I did what I had to do
‘Cause I just knew
Summer: Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene
Later we have Seb walking alone along a pier quietly singing “City of Stars” to himself with these darker lyrics standing out:
Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?
The entire focus of La La Land is on having big dreams and the compromises and choices involved in making those dreams come true. In a lot of ways, the film is saying “You can’t have it all” so you need to prioritize and figure out what is important to you. It is also speaking out the people with dreams to know that life will be challenging and that finding the core of why you had this dream in the first place is essential to getting through the hard times. La La Land does not have a happy ending. Characters make some of their dreams come true, and they learn something about what’s important. Damien Chazelle has made what I’d dare say is a perfect film, visually rich, sonically beautiful, and a story that acknowledges the romantic nature of dreams and the grounded way we have to live life.