“A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles,” the summary tells us, but “La La Land” is much more than that: it’s conflict and romance at its finest.
The opening number is a bit of a surprise in that it’s an ensemble singing and dancing their hearts out in the terrible California traffic despite the blistering heat. From the very start, Chazelle moves from brooding dark tones a la his “Whiplash” days to more vibrant summer shades. The cinematography is dynamic, following each and every move as the chorus comes together to rejoice in the uncertain magic of the day. After the big number, the camera pans to jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). Both are surrounded by their own craft: Sebastian tries to drown out honking horns and angry yelling by rewinding jazz tapes while Mia is on her phone rehearsing lines for an audition. As traffic clears up, they get a glance of each other as he shakes his head disapprovingly and zooms ahead of an unaware Mia.
As fate seems to step in and gives these two another chance—so much for love at first sight—it’s evident that their connection is nothing short of electric. Gosling and Stone seem to harmonize with one another, and their chemistry and wit infuses the film with excitement and humor. Sebastian is filled with Gosling’s suave, yet quirky personality—after all, he wants to own a club and call it “Chicken on a Stick.” Stone is similar, adding her sass and charm to a desperate Mia bouncing from audition to audition.
Meanwhile, through his innovative direction, Damien Chazelle shines. The “Whiplash” director once again brings us a dramatic tale about jazz, but he focuses more about the thrill and improvisation of it all rather than the music itself. He pays homage to the glitz and glam of traditional cinema that Mia was brought up on through 1950s transitions and namedrops to classics like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Bringing Up Baby.” With musicals, it’s easy to cross the bridge into cheesy and over the top, but Chazelle does a fantastic job treading the line of tasteful and artistic.
The musical motifs are expertly done, acting almost like a character of its own. Subtly breathing life into the background of every scene, the remastered callbacks of the earlier songs aren’t afraid to speak up and overtake the actors. However, some have taken to criticizing Gosling and Stone’s occasionally shaky performances of song and dance, but this is understandable. They’re not trained regulars of Broadway. They’re real people, but that shouldn’t undermine their abilities and all the effort they put into the choreography and singing.
“La La Land” is a story rooted in character development, and Mia’s vocals throughout the movie tell a narrative of their own. Frail, yet still snarky when she mocks Sebastian with the starry Hollywood Hills as their background, she eventually graduates to a powerful soloist who belts out the story of her aunt, her main inspiration for becoming an actress. In “Audition,” she gives cheers to all those crazy enough to pursue their farfetched dreams on the big screen, herself included.
The internal parallels within the film and the song titles are absolutely breathtaking. “Someone in the crowd” was the one who lifted Mia off the ground and into a life-changing role in Paris. Sebastian’s—and Keith’s (John Legend)—performance of “Start a Fire” fanned flames into an argument about Seb sobering up and abandoning his dream to open his club in order to be more financially stable. The budding actress counters it by asking him if he even enjoys the music he plays, escalating the situation and making it even more of a waste of “a lovely night.”
Nevertheless, “La La Land” is emotional to say the least. At first glance, the movie seems just that, a trip to “La La Land,” yet it portrays the bargaining nature of life and the harsh battle between security and freedom with a raw grace that’s so compelling. It’s oxymoronic in that it marries escapism and reality into one visually appealing masterpiece. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it had its flaws—a slow wind up to the climax, for example—but the Chazelle flick knows what it is and is successful in portraying it.
Minutes after the movie started, I had a feeling that I, along with the rest of the crowd, would leave whistling and bobbing their head to one of the catchier tunes. But as the Cinemascope credits popped up, all I heard were grumbles and whispers. In fact, my sister told me that she saw three girls in the bathroom crying about how “cruel it was” that Mia and Sebastian didn’t end up together. In a way, the ending was a giant middle finger to traditional cinema and to the conventional, almost hackneyed formula of “love at first sight, a bit of turmoil, then satisfying eternal happiness”, but it makes more than perfect sense.
Early on, Keith questions Sebastian exactly how “he wants to be a revolutionary when jazz is all about the future.” Sebastian is “a traditionalist,” but jazz should be constantly evolving; cinema is no different. Countless movies have ended with a “happily-ever-after,” or “the-guy-gets-the-girl-of-his-dreams.” Not this one.
Chazelle could have made it so easy. He could have let Seb and Mia have their idyllic life together, actress and musician, but he didn’t. He could have let Mia run away from her husband like she did to her boyfriend at the start of the film, but he didn’t. Chazelle’s is a story of ambition and dreams, of tension and sacrifice that does not need to owe Hollywood any favors.
“Epilogue” wasn’t a song rooted in plaintive longing for what could have been, but rather coming to terms with what is. It lives up to its name in that it’s indeed the end of their collective narrative, but it’s merely the beginning to their own individual roles.
He loved her and she, him. But life happened. She lived and so did he, and who could blame them?
As young, naïve hopefuls chasing their fantasies in two cutthroat worlds, Mia and Sebastian may have been entranced and lost in their “La La Land” at one point, but who hasn’t? It’s that feeling of romance and strife that makes this musical hit so close to home, resonating with the human heart. It’s conflict, and it’s compromise. It’s passion, and it’s love. It’s idealistic, yet it’s real.
And to that, I say: here’s to the fools who dream. Here’s to them indeed.