Runtime: 2hrs, 8mins
Comedy, Drama, Musical, Romance
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle won over critics and audiences alike with his spectacular character driven 2014 film Whiplash - about an aspiring drummer being driven to the edge by his abusive instructor. It wasn’t just a remarkable film solely for its dynamic performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, Chazelle’s nuanced blending of genres turned the film into an adrenaline fueled thriller that surprised audiences and left them thinking about just what it takes to make it in the increasingly cutthroat world of music.
Perhaps his latest film, La La Land, was the perfect follow up. His masterful use of music and rhythm both on the soundtrack and in the editing makes the transition to the musical genre a natural next step. It even shares one of its central themes with Whiplash, yet it opts for a far more hopeful outlook. In fact, Chazelle’s revival of the musical shares more in common with Singing in the Rain than it does his previous film. Gone is the dour, noirish stark lighting in favor of bright colors and stunning production design. In fact, from the traffic jam opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” it’s not hard to think of this film as a modern Singing in the Rain even if it never directly imitates it.
As the opening song comes to an end we’re introduced to our two main characters. First there’s Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works as an on-studio barista in between auditions. While she’s able to get several auditions, she’s quickly overlooked despite possessing obvious talent. It’s clear very early on how quickly casting producers move from one audition to the next considering the vast number of people living in LA with the hopes of becoming the next big star.
And then there’s Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz musician with hopes of opening his own jazz bar. The only problem, aside from his lack of funds, is his unwavering commitment to classic jazz. He doesn’t want to see it dumbed down in order to accommodate a generation more interested in pop music even if it means delaying or even forfeiting his dream.
Then Chazelle, true to form, defies expectation by giving them a couple of “meet cutes” that weren’t, before allowing them to realize what great chemistry they have.
It may come off as a light-hearted romance under the guise of an old fashioned musical, but at its heart it’s a relatable story of two twenty-something’s making one last effort to chase their dreams before reality sets in and sidelines them for good. As such, Chazelle’s decision to make the film a stylized musical grants the film a dreamlike quality perfectly suited to characters refusing to be grounded by reality. They’re both perpetually one more failure away from giving up and settling down with some steady job they don’t care about. The film follows somewhat standard rom-com structure - bring them together, they fall in love, force them apart, and finally bring them back together again. The thing that forces them apart is Sebastian’s attempts to compromise his art in favor of a steady job that would provide for the two of them. They both know they’d be happier pursuing their dreams than compromising. Which inevitably makes this film’s version of “bring them back together again” a subversion of form. Perhaps it’s Chazelle’s unwillingness to compromise his art in favor what’s expected.
La La Land, as the title suggests, is also an ode to Los Angeles and old Hollywood from its classic Hollywood musical styling to its love of classic nightclubs playing their music the way the founding fathers of jazz music would have appreciated. There are scenes allowing both characters to introduce each other to these separate but related worlds in ways that grant a deeper understanding of them. In fact, during Mia’s studio tour, she shows Sebastian a window that served as a production set on Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman shared a scene. It plays as if foreshadowing as Chazelle, late in the film, mirrors the moment when Bergman’s Ilsa Lund walks into a nightclub to find Bogart’s Rick Blaine while Sam plays their favorite tune again. The looks on their faces tell of the history between them without putting words to it.
Though both Gosling and Stone give great performances, this is Emma Stone’s film. It begins and ends with her, and Gosling’s character exists to facilitate her character arc. That’s no slight to Gosling or the writing, whose character feels well fleshed out as well, but Stone gives the better performance. She gets the film’s most moving song toward the end (“The Fools Who Dream”), and Chazelle wisely avoids cutting away from her face as she gives a full range of emotions.
And as for the music, it’s a mix of big band, jazz and Broadway show tunes. They start off with several energetic, entertaining songs but those eventually give way to slower more wistful tunes that seem to hit the right emotional note at just the right time. That’s thanks in large part to Chazelle’s Whiplash collaborator Justin Hurwitz’s (with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) effort to recall the musicals of classic Hollywood rather than contemporary Hollywood. Rather than singing to push the plot along, these characters express clear emotions in the form of song and dance. And both Gosling and Stone, who did all their own singing and dancing, looked as though they’ve been doing it for years.
La La Land is a movie about romance that utilizes the romance about movies as well as any ever has. It’s a movie relatable to younger generations that utilizes the style of generations long gone. It celebrates song, dance, love and dreams for how essential they are to life and art. It’s the kind of movie that will always remind us of what it feels like to be young.