It’s no hyperbole to say that 2016 was a rough one, with the loss of iconic figures in all areas of the arts and large swathes of the population – and indeed the world – making VERY bad choices. Hope has been snuffed out, we’re in a regressive state; do we even dare to dream anymore? Then in waltzes in La La Land, a Technicolor musical that harkens back to the uplifting spectacles that offered escape for audiences back in the ’40s and ’50s. During awards season, when heavier fare is being served up, it’s a film that not only reminds you of the magic and uplifting potential of cinema, but that maybe 2016 wasn’t all bad.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own club but is stuck, repressing his urge to create while playing derivative tunes in a restaurant bar. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress who veers from one crushing audition to another, in between serving coffee on the Warner Brothers lot. Fate brings them together, repeatedly. The trope of two people clashing when clearly they are destined to be together is mined for plenty of amusement in the early stages before giving way to a full blown romance. As they push each other on towards their dreams, they find their new levels of success begin to jibe with their creative ideals, as well as their relationship.
La La Land harkens back to classics like Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or West Side Story; however, it lacks the gravitas of those – the splendor, the scale, or the budget. It’s still gorgeous, with vibrant and bold colors, neon lit streets and starry skies. The tap dancing and impromptu sing-alongs to heartwarming (and heartbreaking) lyrics and melodies are there, but it forgoes the full embrace of the big scale musical in favor of something more personal and contemporary. It’s more of an intimate homage that a true successor to the musical greats. The film is a measured, calculated production, but there is a deliberate lack of refinement at times. A lack of scale and these flaws give the film a grounding that makes its more fanciful indulgences all the sweeter. Gosling and Stone are charming, but neither are professional singers or dancers. If you listen to the soundtrack, you’ll occasionally hear the pair collapse in laughter during a song. It’s intentionally imperfect, which only makes it more endearing.
This intimacy is down to the chemistry of the two leads. Gosling’s Sebastian is broodingly charming with some damn silky feet. Stone’s Mia has a gritty determination and sass, but lacks a belief in herself and the world. Stone is given more to deal with, and is an utter delight until her solo number Audition (The Fools Who Dream), a moment that elevates her to stardust. Their early encounters, which are far more antagonistic, verge on being an old-fashioned screwball comedy. Perhaps never more so than an early scene where Mia attends a party where Sebastian is playing a gig in a ’80s synth band. It’s a scene that not only showcases the chemistry between the pair, but also the devilish sense of humor imbued into the film.
Their relationship is really about how they play off each other and draw out each other’s qualities. Seb is a man who embraces his craft, always ready to perform; it’s an extension of who he is, while Mia has the talent but not the confidence. This is subtly shown by her having to change into tap shoes before a dance number while Seb is already wearing his. It’s these little details in the film as well as the impressive work of Gosling and Stone that do much to fill in a lot of the blanks within the script. Even walking side by side, the pair don’t need a song or dance to share a little magic.
The other main character in the film is the city of Los Angeles itself, given a majesty that verges on the magical, even in its more mundane locations. It’s a lively, spontaneous atmosphere, conjured by Linus Sandgren’s glorious cinematography along with the wonderful music and original songs from Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul. It makes you ask why don’t we get more musicals; emerging from the theater with a spring in your step and a song stuck in your head should be a regular occurrence, not a rare treat. Perhaps the only other comparable event this year was the glorious “No Dames” sequence featuring Channing Tatum in Hail, Caesar!
Like his previous effort Whiplash, writer/director Damien Chazelle showcases has a reverence for jazz and artistic endeavors, as well as compromise in the name of commerce. There’s a very interesting challenge to Seb’s ethic with his path in the film, stemming from a relationship and collaboration with Keith, a musician played by John Legend, that could form the very interesting core of another movie. The creative journey Seb and Mia take is intertwined with their relationship; at its core, La La Land IS telling a love story, but a bittersweet one. Chazelle presents a relationship, embedded in whimsy, where things don’t work out happily ever after. Love can light a fire that may not last, but instead serves to ignite something else: inspiration, creativity, desire. It’s a sugarcoated smack of reality that will draw a tear. You can remember the journey, you can embrace his fanciful flourish at the end that shows what could have been, or you can take in the look and smile that says while a relationship may end, some love lasts forever.
La La Land is nostalgic but equally a breath of fresh air that reaffirms the potency of the musical. Its resonance is strengthened with a bittersweet quality that tempers its escapism. A showcase of talent, creativity, and chemistry that charms and captivates. It’s one of the best films of the year, and it’s certainly the best antidote to the past twelve months we could ask for.
La La Land is released on December 16th, 2016.