La La Land (2016)
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Produced by Fred Berger and thirteen others
Cinematography by Linus Sandgren
Music by Justin Hurwitz
Regal Waugh Chapel Stadium 12 & IMAX (2:08)
People ask me all the time why I don’t like musicals. I tell them it’s mostly because I spent years of my life playing trumpet in pit orchestras for little theater gigs, in college out of obligation to a music fraternity, and later to pick up some extra money. Of course little theater is far removed from Broadway, but I like professionally-produced live musicals even less than amateur productions. Movie musicals are a different matter and while La La Land certainly qualifies as a “musical,” I think of it as something more. The film has also been called a “love letter to” L.A., nostalgia, classic musical-dance numbers, and much more. Those elements are certainly present in La La Land, but I believe none of them is the point of the film. Then what is?
Reality versus fantasy and the choices we make in our lives based on them.
Let me explain. But first, the story.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress working as a barista near the Warner Brothers lot in Hollywood. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a lover of jazz, a pianist who takes jobs playing music he doesn’t like in order to pay the bills. Mia and Sebastian “meet” in a manner of speaking, during an L.A. traffic jam that opens the film. Before that meeting, a woman steps out of her car and begins one of the most glorious dance sequences in modern movies, a sequence so outrageously fantastic it has to be the stuff of pure fantasy.
That’s the point, or part of it, anyway. Stay with me, now…
Sebastian and Mia accidentally run into each other again as Sebastian grudgingly plunks out Christmas tunes on a piano for the owner of a restaurant (J.K. Simmons, playing a character slightly nicer than the one he played in Whiplash, but with much less screen time). Mia doesn’t understand jazz and Sebastian doesn’t understand why Mia won’t pursue her real dream. You’ve seen this story before, you know what’s going to happen, but in a way, you haven’t and you don’t.
The point of the film, again, is not nostalgia, singing and dancing, a tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood or any of that. The point is the conflict between fantasy and reality. Like Mia and Sebastian, we all have dreams and fantasies of where we want our lives to go. And then reality creeps in, facing you with the things you have to do to pay the rent and put bread on the table. At a critical point in the film, Mia asks Sebastian why he’s taken a well-paying musical job when it’s taking him away from his real dream of opening a jazz club, asking him him if he really likes the music he’s playing. And is Mia’s pursuit of her dream going any better?
We can ask ourselves the same questions. Are we pursuing our dreams, maybe even while we’re trying to make a living doing something else, something we may not even like? Or have we given up on the dream? At what point do you forsake the fantasy for the reality? Should we? Ever?
When you look at the fantasy vs. reality theme as an overall concept of the film, La La Land becomes something much more than a musical romantic comedy. It speaks to big issues, life issues, messy issues. In seeking to do so, the film gives us some incredible moments that we must evaluate in that context. If not, the film becomes just another nostalgic look at a bygone era set in the modern world. But I believe it’s much more than that.
In some ways, the strength of the film becomes its weakness. The two worlds of fantasy and reality don’t come together satisfactorily; they can’t, not really, and again, that may be the point. Yet at the end, there’s no doubt whether we’re left with fantasy or reality.
But for pure enjoyment, there are moments in La La Land that are magic. Chazelle is a marvelous storyteller and is gifted with an amazing eye. And while many compare the film to Singin’ in the Rain, it’s not Singin’ in the Rain. With all due respect to Stone and Gosling, the dancing in the film is charming, but just adequate. Gene Kelly they are not, but to ask them to be Gene Kelly (or even to compare them to him) would be unfair. So let’s not do it.
Stone and Gosling do, however, have their own strengths and their chemistry works very well together. I’ve never been a huge Ryan Gosling fan but I think he’s smart enough to choose parts that play to his strengths. He may have a limited range, but he sure makes the best of it with roles that suit him while still challenging him. You have to admire that. Stone, however, is able to pull off a wider range of emotions and expressions. She will almost certainly receive a Best Actress nomination for this film and she deserves it. (And possibly Gosling deserves one also; what he does, he does well.)
La La Land is director Damien Chazelle’s first film since the attention-getting Whiplash (2014), another film about a musician who’s having problems with his career. A couple of years ago I wrote about Whiplash – I film I really liked – and discussed why the ending of that film sabotages itself and makes its protagonist Andrew more of a selfish manipulator than a hero. The ending of La La Land seems more honest and in some ways more authentic, even though it may seem a bit manipulated. Perhaps it is.
Chazelle has had the idea for La La Land brewing for quite a few years. Before the success of Whiplash, he never had the funding or studio backing to get the picture made, but with Whiplash’s $50 million return on a $3.3 million investment, the powers-that-be began paying attention. His next project will be First Man, a film about the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong, who will be played by… Ryan Gosling.
So go see La La Land for the music, the dancing the nostalgia, the whatever. But at some point, think about the struggle Mia and Sebastian face between fantasy and reality. Reflect on your own life and see if the movie that entertains us so well also reaches a little deeper inside all of us.
Photos: Fandango, Film Comment, Variety, Coming Soon, Awards Daily, The Wrap