Overview: In La La Land, a jazz pianist and aspiring actress struggle with the reality of pursuing their artistic dreams in Los Angeles while falling for each other. Summit Entertainment; 2016; Rated PG-13; 128 minutes.
California Here I Come: La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is an impressive follow-up to the director’s most recent film Whiplash. With his newest, Chazelle follows Whiplash with another film about the compromises and sacrifices that accompany creative ambition, albeit with an entirely different tone. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are both struggling artists aiming to maintain their creative integrity while finding success in Los Angeles. The plot is markedly simple, but in its execution, La La Land simultaneously establishes a creative visual achievement and manages to remain grounded and sincere.
It is immediately apparent that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were not cast based upon their ability to sing and dance, but rather for their ability to nail both comedic timing and dramatic beats. Neither Gosling nor Stone are professional singers or dancers and neither are Sebastian and Mia. Their heart and chemistry is what creates the absolute joy in watching them dance against painted movie sets and Los Angeles skylines. The musical performances lack the absolute perfection and effortless grace of, for example, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose era of film is consistently referenced, and this choice feels deliberate. Their heart and authenticity, but lack of experience, shows the cracks in the glossy artifice created by the vibrant, dreamy atmosphere of their musical numbers.
California Dreamin’: “Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?” Sebastian asks his sister Laura (Rosemary DeWitt). Why indeed, asks Chazelle throughout the rest of the film. La La Land is romantic in both aspirations and execution. Whether in its lightest, theatrical musical scenes as Sebastian and Mia fall in love, or its most serious dramatic scenes in which they question themselves and each other, La La Land is unapologetically romantic, from its visuals to its commitment to the connection between its leads.
Stone’s comedic timing serves as an effective barometer for the film’s tone. Stone plays many scenes that could have either felt corny or cruel as light-hearted, hopeful, and humorous. Gosling proves to be similarly lowkey in his performance but predictably charming.
The movie sets expectation with an introductory large scale musical number, complete with gymnastics and parkour, performed atop cars on a Los Angeles highway. The grandiose nature of the first scene, largely unmatched in scale and cheese factor in subsequent musical numbers, allows the viewer to accept the reality and almost anything that follows. The traditional overture sets the tone from the beginning as one where conventional visual and directorial choices are subject to manipulation.
Form and function overlap fantastically, and the sometimes corny and melodramatic suspended reality associated with musicals is used to reflect the dreams of the main characters. The musical numbers, while admittedly not perfectly executed, are well-written, and the overture and musical themes are emotionally evocative and beautiful. The soundtrack and score, composed and orchestrated by Justin Hurwitz, are both impressive. Musical numbers “Audition” and “A Lovely Night” are gorgeous, the former for its emotional honesty and simplicity and the latter with its upbeat, jazzy accompaniment.
Los Angeles, I’m Yours: The suspension of disbelief afforded by musicals as a genre allows Chazelle to make creative choices with the lighting, camerawork, and score, and to craft some fantasy sequences that are a gorgeous visual spectacle, all of it aesthetically integral to the film. Alternating between a cotton candy pink lit scene of Sebastian against sunset with the cold, harsh light of Mia’s failed audition, for example, reflects the emotional highs and lows reflect of anyone facing rejection after rejection in the uncertain world of the arts. Theatrical lighting, sometimes dramatic spotlights, sometimes neon lights, reference the stage, and contribute to the overall homage to musical theater, but allow for heightened drama that reflect the emotions of the leads.
Styles of camerawork vary as well; long steady shots that let dance performances breathe, or shaky-cam used during a heartbreaking argument between Sebastian and Mia, reflect the emotional tone of the scene in ways that draws contrast between the lighthearted and dramatic scenes, making them not only tonally but visually different.
La La Land is not especially subtle in its themes, and somewhat light on plot. The most surprising subversion of expectation, in terms of story, is a commitment to a lack of a simple resolution; reality and dreams can interact and coexist but not without complications. The epilogue is a fitting and somewhat surprising ending in that feels both realistic and remains stylistically in line with the rest of the film. La La Land references and sometimes pokes fun at both the artifice and unadulterated joy of classic musical comedies, and also aspiring artists of all kinds who abandon their day jobs and pursue dreams of artistic success. But ultimately, La La Land has something positive to say about those who are willing to put themselves out into the world and endure the rejection and doubt that confront them.
Overall: The heart of this movie lies not in the ability of its leads to execute perfect musical numbers, or in a plot that will shatter the genre of the musical comedy, but rather in Sebastian and Mia’s embodiment of the hopeful aspirations of two artists who feel deeply about their craft. La La Land feels like both a deconstruction and congratulatory praise of those who dare to dream of creative fulfillment and an ode to a head in the clouds.
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment