Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
In the best of ways, almost nothing in this film was real nor natural. Like in many great musicals, the lines, the bursting into song, every minimal gesture was a premeditation, synchronized to perfection. La La Land is relentlessly fierce in its musicality, and understands itself as a performance more so than a film, at least in its beginning when a random woman starts singing amidst a mundane highway traffic jam. It’s senseless and it’s fun, humorous in a way. It is after the song that the logo comes up in a 50s-style font, reminiscent of old-Hollywood. It tells us immediately that there is a light-heartedness in the story ahead, but it runs deeper than we know.
Mia (Stone) is an actress facing all the necessary defeats of apathetic producers, a lame job, failure after failure, etc. She meets Sebastian (Gosling), technically a number of times, in what could’ve become “meet-cute” moments but are blown off for a funnier one later on. Sebastian is a jazz pianist and a jazz elitist. He refuses to play Christmas Carols again and again, causing him to be fired by JK Simmons (Chazelle seems to be fond of Simmons’ abrasiveness). The couple communicates at first through sarcastic quips about each other’s “success.” Sebastian’s relentless (and rather necessary for his position) passion for music and desire to open an old-school jazz club inspires and drives Mia to not only continue her pursuits, but to make them more personal. Reality acts as a lurking third figure in their relationship—to minimal surprise to us, but to their dismay.
The story is simple but it is told beautifully. Classified as a musical, there is never truly a moment’s quiet without the presence of tension, each moment strung together by Damien Chazelle specifically to transition to the next moment of drama or to the next song. Featuring both musical numbers and instrumental performances within the actual context of the film, Chazelle displays profound perfectionism of directing and editing, with exuberant long takes throughout song and dance, cinematography and costume design to draw the eye through the use of color, and other cues to assure and remind us of his love of musicals.
On a narrative level, La La Land also diverts from the norms set by its predecessors and modern competitors with its joyful transcendence of various genres. In addition to its feeling a part of the grand tradition of classic musicals, the story itself is ultimately a blend of romance, drama, and comedy. Mia and Sebastian, even when they first meet, show a magnetic attraction, even when denying it playfully through the words of the song they share. The story and the world it takes place in, as stated, is unreal, but the most believable thing in it is what’s between the two of them. Its comedy is shameless and bold, silly enough to make sure we know that there isn’t any aura of pretentiousness present. The drama evolves slowly and surely as their stories develop, and, as if without us noticing, takes full control for the final act.
La La Land takes place in modern day—A place where old-timers have always perceived as unromantic, but are likely to see differently amongst the nostalgic style presented by Chazelle, but still a difficult place for old souls like Mia and Sebastian. As if catering to me specifically, the 1955 classic “Rebel Without a Cause” is prevalent in its story. The pieces of music are often played multiple times throughout the film, but they’re never played the same way twice; it’s the emotional backdrop of the person playing it that contributes to the film and the emotional depth that Chazelle aims for.
At times the story does feel thin and empty, and there are one too many montages. But somewhere within its free-spirited nature and its passion-driven presentation, La La Land finds its place with the potential of a modern classic.