Hollywood is the dream factory (emphasis on dream, double emphasis on factory). It’s a land of misfit actors chasing what if’s and racing could be’s. Children chasing passions. Adults chasing souls. Where the dreamer and the cynic made love, had a baby, and called it the film industry.
La La Land is a story of real people living in a fake world. Emma Stone plays Mia, a hapless actress – go figure – whose chance encounter with a stifled composer, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) leads the pair down a starry path of delights and disappointments. The film is at once an embrace and a response to the golden age Hollywood musical. It boasts its cinema-scope by literally stretching the aspect ratio in its opening titles. As if to say what you’re about to see is too grand to contain in any 4:3 TV. And it’s no empty promise either.
La La Land opens as any good musical does, with a big toe-tapper. Done in one seamless take (every film student’s wet dream), the song drifts through a traffic jam of dreamers bound for Los Angeles. It’s an earnest ear-worm that’s as delightful to hear as it is to see, and sets the tone for a film that’s very much the same way. But as the camera descends on one mahogany convertible, whose driver, our Sebastian, compulsively rewinds jazz on his tape deck, we start to understand La La Land as a compulsively nostalgic film.
“Is someone in the crowd the only thing you really see?”
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle reprises Whiplash’s epitaphs for jazz in the character of Sebastian. He’s trying to resurrect jazz with his own traditional yet original music. Jazz, in La La Land, stands in for music as a whole, as it takes the beatings dealt by pop culture and all its cynicism. Though it’s never spoken directly, you can tell by the red and black costumes and props, the song “Start A Fire”, and the deadened expression on Gosling’s face, that this is a Faustian bargain. It’s also clever that in this shift toward a more techno sound, Sebastian becomes literally surrounded by technology. There’s a shot of him in a youtube video that fades out just as he looks into the camera with the most deadpan face. It’s like he’s looking out of his prison cell.
Mia’s story is a little more optimistic. She’s the ingenue vying for a dream she doesn’t have to wake up from. And for the first half of the film, she skates by consequence-free, ditching her waitress job and her throwaway boyfriend. There seems more to Mia’s ambitions than there is to Mia herself. Which is fine, for an everyman character. But it’s a strange idea: Emma Stone playing a nobody in Hollywood. But for some reason, it works fine for Gosling. I’m willing to bet it’s because for a solid year – 2014 – he wasn’t in anything. Emma Stone, on the other hand, has been in everything.
“City of stars, are you shining just for me?”
This would be a detractor if it weren’t for their chemistry, the heart and soul of the film. If the music is the hook, and the direction is the line, then Gosling and Stone’s chemistry is the sinker. It’s hard to even explain why they go so well together. It goes farther than commonalities and fiery ambitions. It’s ineffable, just like love.
La La Land is a fusion of dazzling colour, sound, technology and breathtaking balance between fantasy and realism. What sells me most about it is an aesthetic bursting with creative energy. It’s cinematography on par with American Beauty. Cinema that thinks. But that’s not enough to sell this film for what it really is: a celebration and response to the Hollywood Dream (cousin to the American Dream). Because despite all rationality, we’ll always love it, even after we’ve woken up.
My Rating: 9.5/10