After watching this film two things become astoundingly obvious. Damien Chazelle has an equally unquenchable passion for film and for jazz. He’s also extremely bold, going all the way when it comes to choices as a director with everything from camera set-ups, lighting, staging, even casting. In fact, let’s start right there.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do not initially pop as performers. They’re not song and dance entertainers equal to the likes of Astaire & Rogers or Gene Kelly or Judy Garland. There’s no contest. But the brilliance of this decision is the very fact that these two beloved stars are one of the few remnants from the bygone Hollywood era where romantic stars were paired up together for more than one movie. Bogey & Bacall, Tracy & Hepburn, Loy & Powell, yes even Fred & Ginger.
And in a generation that’s often lacking that kind of history, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling still have a bit of that cinematic romance tying them together not just in one film but in multiple allowing the audience an even greater connection with them.
It makes the musical thoroughly modern and yet most certainly takes cues from the past and the rich tradition that it was born out of. The film’s knockout opening sequence is a far grander more audacious riff off of The Young Girls of Rochefort’ while the film’s ending reflects Chazelle’s deep affection for Umbrellas of Cherbourg wedded with the fantasy scapes of An American in Paris.
But sandwiched in between those obvious touchstones is a film that’s at moments mesmerizing, beautiful, and engaging on its own merits. Chazelle’s sheer boldness behind the camera is thoroughly impressive because he commits to telling his story in the most extraordinary way possible. It dares to dream, succumbing to the glories of the movie musical, taking risks that generally pay off in a big way. Like Jacque Demy he plants his film in the real world, in this case, contemporary Los Angeles, but he also stylizes it through elements such as production design, color, and lighting.
Beginning with the extended artistry of the initial traffic number, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera is about as fluid as they come, even overtly so, bringing such attention to itself that in many respects it becomes another figure, shaping how we view every one of these environments. Its conspicuous ways generally help to turn dance sequences and musical numbers into dynamic spectacles but there are individual moments where we might still question if a more static perspective is in order.
Still, it’s easy enough to disregard this as the camera is constantly casting its gaze on the world painted with the vibrant tones that brighten Los Angeles and allow it to enter a stylized awe-evoking state of eye-popping energy. Likewise, the storyline mixes and matches real-life locales with the artistic and the magical. It succeeds in becoming a diverse patchwork of lights and staging that sets the tone for every moment our stars are on the screen as everything from the backdrops to the very clothing that the actors wear is an extension of their current state.
Emma Stone is a real winner, genuinely hilarious and cute while still being overwhelmingly compelling as she struggles through her acting career balancing her “real job” as a barista with her true aspirations as an actress. And to his credit, although I wasn’t all that sure about Ryan Gosling in this film, with Stone by his side somehow it works rather magically superseding any other objection we might have about his performance. Like Astaire & Rogers, the song and dance routines become the galvanizing moments in the film as they should be. True, they hardly have the same caliber but their chemistry is what it holds it all together.
The minor influences of The Band Wagon can also be seen when they dance together in the night air overlooking Los Angeles. Meanwhile there gravity-defying routine at Griffith Observatory leaves behind simple references to Rebel Without a Cause and becomes its own spectacle entirely.
In all the other nooks and crannies you see the affection for film. The Killers poster on the wall, Ingrid Bergman’s face plastered up in the bedroom, and movie nights watching Bringing up Baby and Notorious with Grandma. But that’s only matched by the infatuation with jazz that similarly surges through the narrative. In this case, Sebastian is the vehicle for this passion. As far as criticisms the only one that I have heard voiced and I too can call into question is the very fact that a Caucasian male wants to resurrect jazz in its purest sense.
If nothing else it’s highly ironic because tradition says that this is an African-American art founded in those roots. That’s not to say that others cannot take the mantle necessarily but in some ways, Sebastian seems to think that people like Keith (John Legend) have sold out on their culture. I suppose that issue is still up for debate long after the credits roll.
Although “City of Stars” might be the most noted number developed by Justin Hurtwitz and Chazelle for this film, I must admit my personal favorite had to be “Audition” because Emma Stone delivers the song with such an earnestness that it’s mesmerizing to watch as all else disappears and we are left to watch her sing in empty space. Perhaps the film is often lacking the minimalistic moments and the jutxtaposition of a scene such as this becomes especially striking. It’s so simple.
The final question to be asked is, what is La La Land or closer yet, what is Chazelle trying to say about fame and pursuing your dreams? Because in the end, it feels like a mixed message. The film is constantly a seesaw back and forth of following your passion, versus just making ends meet, to selling out or turning to alternative paths entirely. And when it’s all said and done and the movie has wrapped up we don’t know quite what we think.
We leave both characters in a place where they are undoubtedly better off than we found them in some respects. Still, there’s a wistfulness that hangs in the air, a bittersweet quality that lingers a moment longer and that gives La La Land a certain power that feels more complex than a simple musical fairy tale. That is yet another thing Chazelle borrows from Demy that works so well.
In some ways, it’s a very “unHollywood” ending and though the film does spend a lot of its time infatuated with that very industry, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be conflicted in the same breath. In fact, that’s probably the most honest conclusion it could have arrived at. Dreams are good, the world can be a magical place if we let it be, but that does not mean for one instant that we will not be met with heartbreak or difficulties along the way.
I found myself unconsciously asking myself, What does the title La La Land even mean? I had not fully considered the implications of the phrase. Yes, it’s having your heads in the clouds, maybe even existing in an ethereal world of fanciful dreamscapes as much as it is a moniker for those who live the Hollywood lifestyle. And it’s in both these places where the film dwells. Partially in the magical realms of dreams but also in those extremely human moments of confusion and failure. That is La La Land in a nutshell.