La La Land follows two souls, connected by their shared struggle to fulfill their desires in the city of dreams. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who earns her living as a barista but spends most of her free time practicing for and going to auditions. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a musician with an affinity for jazz; strong willed and stubborn, he isn’t swayed by criticism, drives an uninsured car because he doesn’t have a steady job and his apartment is filled with unpacked boxes. You’ll undoubtedly recognize these characters but Gosling, Stone and Damien Chazelle (the writer/director) have managed to make them memorable and unique; so much so that I believe most of the continued discussion about the film will be centred on them and their choices and sacrifices.
I was concerned that La La Land would abide by the dangerous Hollywood message that dreams are always within reach. Reminded of its chronic homelessness problem, a more apt Hollywood subtitle would be the city of broken dreams. And while La La Land definitely does play as an ode to the golden era of Hollywood filmmaking, I was pleasantly surprised to see it critique typical Hollywood values too.
The film plays a brilliant game of tug of war, relishing in the scope, awe and dreamlike atmosphere of the city (this may be the most alluring movie about LA ever made) while also acknowledging the harsh reality of failure and disenchantment usually felt by those it took. La La Land, even in its title, lightly criticizes the city as a place of dreams rather than reality. It’s a what if movie that shows two of the most successful (and talented) actors working today, playing unsuccessful people struggling to cope with the possibility that they might not make it, or that their desired success may come at a cost.
The film is also a musical; something I figured would be a point of contention for me. Having admittedly little knowledge and interest in the genre, I was concerned the musical numbers would deter my enjoyment. I was wrong. Besides the ambitious motorway traffic dance number, many of the songs are more somber affairs. They serve to figuratively showcase the characters feelings in what could be described as movie magic. They help the film reach its most alluring highs and also it’s more melancholic edges. They fit naturally within the films structure and impressively don’t feel obligatory.
In one of the best examples of on screen acting acting, Emma Stone gives a consummate performance in an audition where she is cruelly interrupted by casting agents, more interested in their phones and what their assistants are getting them for lunch. It’s a sequence reminiscent of one in Mulholland Dr. where Naomi Watts’ character gives an arresting audition in a film that had showcased purposefully stilted performances up to that point (arguably to highlight the one scene). La La Land’s dreamlike magic mostly comes from the way it moves, sometimes it almost soars much like the perfect film Sunrise though it is far too slow to reach those heights.
The music is fantastic, the dancing, blocking and creativity of some of the scenes beggars’ belief at times and while neither Emma nor Ryan are particularly great singers; their musical moments are honest and true to their characters. Goslings’ character, Sebastian gives an explanation for his Jazz appreciation that should make any non-believer passionate about the art form; the film too managed to make me more open to enjoying musicals. The music here for the most part isn’t hugely memorable after one viewing, residing as atmospheric pieces of a larger, more fulfilling whole. But I can’t imagine it as anything other than a musical. And I can’t imagine any other actors playing these leads as well as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do.
Sebastian remarks that Hollywood is a town that worships everything and values nothing. The film follows this quote and sticks the landing; where it lands will be a point of contention for many people but in my mind it is a satisfying ending that turns a good movie into a great one; a brilliant portrait of sacrifice and failure. I already want to see it again.