The allure of the American dream is that anything is possible, rags can become riches and with enough hard work, dreams can become reality. Perhaps there is no bigger representation of this than Los Angeles, where countless have come harbouring hopes that they are one audition, one pitch, one chance encounter with a big name executive from rubbing elbows with the stars they spent their lives idolizing. This becomes the basis for Damien Chazelle’s third feature film La La Land– a beautiful look at the battle between ambition and love tucked within a passionate homage to the classic Hollywood musical.
Opening with a sprawling number set in typical LA traffic ( six lanes jammed tightly with no end in sight), Chazelle foreshadows the film to come as the drivers exit their vehicles and break out in song. “Climb these hills, I’m reaching for the heights, and chasing all the lights that shine” they sing in the chorus, a line that could double as the thesis for the film itself. After all every person sitting in that traffic jam is here to chase their dreams, among them an aspiring actress (Mia played by Emma Stone) whose biggest role to date is playing barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot and a jazz pianist purist (Seb played by Ryan Gosling) whose musical talents are relegated to playing generic holiday tunes to groups that could care less.The two share a brief exchange before speeding off but as fate (or movie magic) would have it, there are many more encounters to come.
Through a series of meet-cutes, we learn that Seb harbors dreams of revitalizing jazz to its former glory by opening his own club and Mia fantasizes about one day becoming a renowned actress in the vein of Bacall or Bergman. Though their chosen crafts are markedly different, both grow to appreciate the passion the other has for their medium and take comfort in having someone that understands the struggle to balance artistic ambitions with real-world realities.
This balance becomes the driving source of conflict as we witness the ups and downs of their relationship but for the film to reach its desired goals, it requires the two leads to be up for the task. Thankfully both Stone and Gosling deliver, building on their established rapport from previous collaborations (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) they show great chemistry and tackle the challenging choreography (by choreographer Mandy Moore) with grace. Neither should top the charts with their singing ability (especially Gosling) but he does benefit from having more to do as it does feel that Stone’s Mia is a little underwritten in comparison. Stone makesthe most from what she’s given though (in particular the song Audition set near the finale and in one scene set hilariously to the one-hit wonder “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls) exceeding the traditional demands of the love interest to make Mia a fully dimensional characterthat arguably undergoes the greatest development.
Like the film itself, the two leads have a sense of classic Hollywood to them reminiscent of the Astaire-Rogers collaborations of the 50s. This is an effect achieved through their own dynamic chemistry, the charisma of both actors and the direction of Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren whose usage of colors and lighting give both actors that classic Hollywood glow.
By that same token, it is that glow and general schmaltz that can be a little off-putting for some. Chazelle’s vision of Los Angeles is very much an idealized Los Angeles, one that seems to permanently exist in that magic hour that generates that purple skyline, where the skies are filled with stars and not smog. It is in a word: perfect, too perfect but to that it must be noted how this dreamlike state serves as an effective contrast to the film’s second half which sees the musical numbers fade and the strain of balancing ambition with love (for partner and art) come to the forefront.
Metaphorically the plight of his characters in preserving or resurrecting the classic arts could be seen as an extension of Chazelle’s ambition himself as he demonstrates his love for the classics in a film industry that has all but passed the genre by. References and nods to classic film are littered throughout from a giant painting of Bergman on Mia’s wall to the more subtle Gosling twirl on the lamppost a la Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. These references extend intoJustin Hurwitz’s score as the musical numbers make reference to films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) among others. They carry these references proudly but not to the point of distraction, a loving homage if you will that could double as a plea to audiences to preserve the genre in mainstream culture.
Chazelle’s execution of the concept is particularly noteworthy as he does not allow the music to overshadow the narrative. While Hurwitz’s songs are catchy, they also carry expositional function driving the emotional core of the story. Standouts include Audition and Epilogue though ultimately the music does take a backseat to Chazelle’s camera work (most of the numbers are single take with some clever camera motion) and the overall look of the film which is stunning.
In its set up La La Land could easily be a film where the traditional romantic comedy beats are hit (with a side of song and dance as a gimmick) but Chazelle does not seek the simple, instead, the film presents a degree of melancholy pragmatism along with its Hollywood romanticism. This comes to a forefront as the film slows down in its second half, as the musical numbers and the idealistic bliss fades just a little to let in some realism, it is here that La La Land gets to ask its most poignant questions regarding the cost of achieving dreams, of creating “pure” art, of ambition vs love, questions it smartly does not try to provide answers for because sometimes silence or a glance speak far greater volumes than any speech can.
For lost in the beauty that is Hurwitz’s score, Sandgren’s cinematography, Stone/Gosling’s performances, and Chazelle’s loving direction is that the function of art is meant to make the viewer feel something, to emotionally resonate. If that is the goal of art, then La La Land is indeed a modern masterpiece.
La La Land is a stunning homage to a classic era tied to a romantic love story examining the price of achieving dreams.