When I first heard that Damien Chazelle’s third feature film was an original musical I was a mix of both skeptical and ecstatic. Chazelle’s second film Whiplash remains one of my favorite films to have been released during my lifetime, so the bar was certainly high for his next film. I have to admit that I haven’t really been a fan of Ryan Gosling until recently and I loved Emma Stone in Birdman but I still wasn’t sure about her as a leading player. On top of all that this just seemed like the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore. I mean, an original musical? Preposterous! Nowadays the taste of film musical lovers like me are satiated by the likes of Into the Woods and Les Miserables which are by no means poorly-made but certainly arrive with a certain lethargy because musical fans know it’ll be bastardized or general audiences just may not accept it. It’s with this in mind that I slowly anticipated the arrival of La La Land throughout this year as a ray of hope for the genre. Not only was I not disappointed, but I was both blown away and left breathless as I left the theater by the breath of fresh air that is La La Land.
From the opening number, set among a Los Angeles traffic jam, I knew that I had been transported into a sort of magical world that is both delightfully bright and also painfully familiar. The story is based around two intersecting artists, Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a talented young jazz pianist. Mia suffers through a slew of problematic and dreadful auditions while she works as a barista on a movie lot. Sebastian works as a freelance musician who wants to inject some life into what he sees as the dying art of jazz music. How appropriate. Their romance blossoms rapidly but with such romantic details and carried by such a likable pair of actors that I hardly noticed. Their flirting ultimately culminates in a pair of dance numbers set above the city of Los Angeles: one at the top of a hill overlooking the city and another in the Griffith Observatory. I can only hope that the latter especially remains recognized for its beauty in the years to come. Just like these two scenes the film carries along with a reckless abandon for much of its runtime and with a light and heavy heart where appropriate. The musical rhythm that gave Whiplash its breakneck pace works perfectly here as well.
As the relationship between Mia and Sebastian moves along and their dreams become larger, they are faced with the realities of their choices and the strains on their relationship that come from compromising said dreams with reality. But the choices that Chazelle makes for the stories direction are never predictable and only further endear the characters to our hearts. The songs, of which there are a good mix of both jazz and more traditional Broadway-style tunes, help create this sort of magical world that Mia and Sebastian call Los Angeles. There is never a moment where they feel forced. Like all great musicals they give us an insight into the characters that would not work spoken and add to the film’s spellbinding effect. Through the addition of bright colors and picturesque camera work, this film shines brightly and never shies away from its luster.
Both Stone and Gosling more than deliver, with the edge going to Emma Stone who gives perhaps the best performance of her young career. La La Land needn’t take the time to create meaningless side characters as I find that almost anyone can see a little bit of themselves, their dreams and their passions, in this starry-eyed young couple. Stone brings a presence to the big screen that is always delicate but weighted. As the emotional arc of the film nears its end she delivers a song labelled by the studio as “Audition” that left me emotionally spent and much more. It felt as though a film actually spoke directly to me. In just a few minutes it captures all of the hopes of young artists and idealists striving to make their way in the world, and never stopping in spite of failure and injury. It is set against a pitch-black background because all that you need is Stone’s face, the music, and a dream of your own to project onto the screen. I would think it criminal if she went unrecognized for this performance.
It can be said that the script for La La Land is cliche at times, but it must be to match its level of romance and passion. We connect with the story not in spite of these cliches but because of them. What is so surprising about this film is not just that it provides innovation to the musical genre but to the state of movies themselves. In a world of constant remakes and reboots on the big screen and vapid and at times deplorable images on the small one, La La Land finds a unique voice not just because of what it is but when it arrives. Films like this almost never get made anymore, if they ever did, because it manages to perfectly balance a tender heart with a wonderful, powerful, and, one can hope, truthful story about pursuing dreams. Now more than ever dreams may seem like a far off prospect; a part of a future that may not exist. But with things the way they are now, sometimes dreams are all that we have.