La la land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle (2016).
There are films that touch us and there are films that grab us by the lapels. And then there are films that reach into our heart and grasp it, and things are quite not the same for a while. These films are rare and wonderful and we cherish them, even if they hurt. La la land is many things. It’s a musical, but not in the stricter sense. It’s a love story, a self-discovery story, a love letter to jazz and film and a reflection on what dreams are made of.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress in present-day Los Angeles. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist whose ambition is to open his own club. She’s mesmerised upon hearing him play at a restaurant by chance. After some belligerent sexual tension, they start a romance. He encourages her to write her own play to make a difference. She reminds him that he shouldn’t give up his dream of a club, even if it’s hard or he has doubts. They are hell-bent on achieving their goals, but it’s not easy.
The first act of the movie feels like a modern-day Fred Astaire movie. There’s jazzy singing and dancing that moves the plot forward and explains the characters and their motivations. It follows the cliché of young girl coming to the city of dreams to become a star, who might as well rock the world of tormented and self-destructive romantic artist. And then it all gets deconstructed.
The singing and dancing stops and gets replaced with dialogue as they face mundane conundrums: should I risk it by making something new? Should I bet on this potentially great idea or stick with the well-paid job that’s not so bad but not what I had wanted? Music is still central to the movie, much like in Whiplash, but it’s not a musical drama anymore; it only comes back in the climactic moment when dreams are true again.
At one point, Keith says to Sebastian: “How can you be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” It looks like Chazelle was telling that to himself: his first third of movie takes the form of a Broadway musical, bearing many similarities with classics such as Singin’ in the rain. But then he decides he needs to make something new. There are already small clues right from the opening number that tell you you’re about to see something different: the emphasis is on dreams, not on love. Mia and Sebastian have personalities, aspirations and ambitions, they don’t just live for each other’s love. And loving each other is not enough: they make mistakes, take chances and live with them. This is a great departure from the Hollywood romance, which stops right after they have fallen in love and start dating. Hollywood never tells you about their falling out, about the difficulties they find. It’s just happily ever after and that’s all the depth you’re getting.
The movie’s been criticized for casting Stone and Gosling. For me, they’re better than Miles Teller and Emma Watson would have been, but we’ll just never know. Nothing’s perfect but I feel Stone and Gosling were good choices because despite not being great dancers and singers, they have something the movie needs more than that: they’re sympathetic and relatable. In the end, there’s just one tap-dancing number and it’s correct.
The ending is what gives sense to everything else in this movie: it goes beyond the happily ever after and appeals to an experience almost everyone has had. It doesn’t only speak about dreams but also about life. It has haunted me for days and days; I find it hard to speak impartially about this movie because it managed to get an intense emotional response from me, and that’s not something that happens every day.
Now, please allow me to analyse the film further, with spoilers.