Discouraged by another failed audition, Emma Stone’s Mia takes the high, albeit hopeful, road to produce a one-woman show and forge her own luck in life. At one point, daunted by the feat, she worries to Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian: ‘It feels too nostalgic to me. Are people going to like it?’ And with no hesitation he responds, ‘fuck ‘em’.
In theory, a classic Hollywood musical in 2016 is a sure setup for failure. But like Mia director Damien Chazelle couldn’t care less, rather choosing to pay tribute to the dreamers in his latest feature, La La Land. And it’s paid off, collecting countless award nominations and acclaim, and wowing critics for its novelty and charm as an expertly crafted jazz musical that hearkens back to the golden age of cinema.
It only seemed fit that this classic be set in present-day Los Angeles, where Mia works as a barista at the Warner Bros lot serving stars between auditions; and Sebastian barely survives as a recently unemployed jazz musician. As fate (and convention) would have it, they cross paths and together realise their deepest passions, heartaches and fears the only way a musical knows how: through spontaneous song and dance.
Characters will burst from all corners delivering grandiose numbers, draped in vibrant reds, blues and yellows. Other times conversation seeps seamlessly to song, and switches pace for a more sombre tone that’s equally captivating in its touching intimacy. It’s where the pair’s love affair is most visceral, where it erupts and where it sometimes fails – and it’s only amplified by Gosling and Stone’s visible on-screen chemistry.
Regardless of when, why or how, the music is strong – both lyrically and melodically – and is varied, so its appearances are welcomed and never exceed their purpose for genre-sake. It’s these moments that forge parallels to Chazelle’s 2014 smash Whiplash, particularly when trumpets and drums suddenly roar and blare and invade a scene in all their raucous glory. Though only the director’s third feature, his filmography seems to, thus far, chronicle a love affair he holds dear with jazz; one that only frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz (who composed orchestral and lyrical work for each of Chazelle’s works) seems amply fit to convey.
But that’s only half of La La Land’s charm; the other its glorious visuals. Los Angeles acts as a blank canvas ripe with possibility for cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Joy, American Hustle) to experiment with mood through clever uses of lighting and colour. Scenes feel crafted for that exact moment – whether in times of drama or comedy, or when traversing the lines between fantasy and reality wherein Sebastian’s and Mia’s dreams are beautifully realised. Her dress – canary yellow – beams against a pastel-pink sunset that’s fading against the night sky; rich shadows frame a spotlight on a solitary Sebastian, who bangs at his piano keys in a turbulent moment of passion,erasing time and space where onlyhe and Mia endure as the two lone souls in existence.
But among the flashy visuals and bombastic musical numbers is the film’s thematic substance – and that what truly makes it special. The same nostalgia Chazelle attempts to reignite in format is conveyed through Mia’s and Sebastian’s separate pursuits: she dreams of making it big as an actress (that age-old fantasy for Hollywood stardom); and he dreams of opening a classic jazz lounge totally reminiscent of musical noir Blues in the Night. Only soon enough does their affair begin to suffer at the helms of their success.
It’s Mia who really struggles with the concept of love most. On one hand, she rejects the genre’s Cinderella myth and avoids becoming a heroine who impulsively lusts for and depends on another to complete her. She’d rather dream big despite unrecognition, and risk it all for a chance at happiness – even if that means great sacrifice. But that’s not to disregard Sebastian entirely, who provides her with some much-needed motivation at times.
These personal battles with the reality of compromise echo way beyond each character’s narrative struggles. The otherwise tired themes akin to the genre – of falling in and out of love and following your dreams – could easily have made La La Land another stale variation of most romantic tales. But it’s not. The film tackles familiar territory, of where ambition collides with fear when searching for professional and personal fulfilment, and challenges them entirely. In both Mia’s and Sebastian’s complex characterisations, and in Chazelle’s self-reflexive take on the genre, La La Land is as much entertainment as it is a poignant and nuanced exploration of humanity.
The film’s cheery veneer therefore crumbles and we’re left with a rather callous picture of an industry that worships all yet values no one and nothing. The tumultuous love affair between Mia and Sebastian ultimately suffers in its wake, leaving their flaws and their failures bare. But – and rightly so – they emerge as the film’s most authentic element amongst the great fakery of it all.
And so, for the magic and the whimsy that once saturated Hollywood and that so fails the pair, its absence has apparently been sorely missed. La La Land knows that fake may falter but it’s here to stay: it fuels our desires; it gives us false hope; and, by god, it spurs these timeless journeys for love and happiness better than anything or anyone knows how. So instead of repudiation, it chooses to celebrate it through witty, downright funny, and entertaining cinema that’s equally heart-warming as it is totally disheartening.
It’s for this very reason that La La Land reminds me why I love cinema: for its wondrous experiences that transport me to another world, regardless of how extravagant or unreal. It’s here to reassure us all, as viewers and as humans, that maybe it is okay to be a dreamer, even if only for right now.