[Obviously, I’m very late to the game with this review but I made extensive notes in January when I first saw this movie. As I found the movie so memorable that I can still remember the great majority of it, I feel confident enough to write this review before my upcoming rewatch. Quick shoutout to a friend who wrote an earlier and better-worded review]
La La Land has been building up a massive hype during the course of the 2016 festival season and it was the very premise that already had me in: The director of Whiplash makes a musical starring everybody’s darling Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a couple (this coupling was worked on screen before). It was my most anticipated movie of the year and I wasn’t disappointed at all.
And there’s a lot that could have gone awry. I believe the general public isn’t particularly fond of musicals and this one pays homage to the old classics. However, with its sincerity and life-affirming atmosphere, it just struck a chord with me (pun intended). The songs are pretty great, not just musically but also lyrically, and I instantly purchased the soundtrack. ‘City of Stars’ grows to have an emotional impact and keeps stuck in your head for days, whereas the ‘Another Day of Sun’, similarly catchy, is very feel-good and energetic and aptly captures the blossoming of the romance. When you finish the movie, you keep humming these two songs for at least half an hour Both lead actors sing and dance pretty well, and ‘Audition’ proves all the naysayers wrong because Emma Stone simply gave me goosebumps during her performance of this song. The choreographies are planned out meticulously and are fun to watch and had me constantly tapping my feet. The cheerful freeway sequence sets the tone for the movie right from the start and the dance on the hill was a very sweet moment for the romance in the making. That most of the musical sequences are filmed in one continuous take is just the impressive icing on the top.
Moreover, the whole movie is also aesthetically stunning, from the costumes to the amazing production design, the colorful look fits the cheerful nature of the movie perfectly and very seldom feels cheesy.
Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress struggling to convince people in auditions. She meets Sebastian, a pianist who was fired by his jerk boss (fun cameo by evil J.K. Simmons) for not sticking to the same-old songs. Sebastian, portrayed by Ryan Gosling in a career-best performance, is a smooth, blithe and determined dreamer, who convinces her to believe in herself. The passion with which he talks about his goals and encourages Mia makes Ryan Gosling’s performance worthwhile and even as a man, one cannot help but develop a slight man-crush. Together with Sebastian, I fell in love with Emma Stone (again) and her slightly naïve, gorgeous, sweet and affectionate Mia, not least because of their amazing chemistry. Stone excels with a performance rich in variety but never exaggerated and deserves every price she’s won.
[Cool side note: It is not only a great movie about dreams, it is also a cool L.A. movie, which the title cleverly plays on, which is the city of dreamers and believers. L.A. also delivers very interesting settings for romanticism, resulting in the movie aptly capturing the process of falling in love.]
Whoever still hasn’t seen this movie should finally get around to watch one of the best movies of 2016 (2017 in Germany) and enjoy Damien Chazelle’s captivating accomplishment. This is a very hot contender for my 2017 movie of the year.
Now, I’ll go a bit more specific into content, I do have a designated spoiler section, however…
Not everything is idyllic and happy in the movie. The second act, interestingly introduced by the season “Fall”, also effectively demonstrates the hardships and self-doubt one has to overcome to achieve one’s goals.
La La Land also cleverly combines form and content: Just as Sebastian strives to repopularize his beloved jazz genre and dedicates his life to pursuing his dreams, the movie is a declaration of love to the musical genre and Damien Chazelle’s (seemingly successful) attempt to acquaint new audiences with his favorite (but at that point practically clinically dead) movie genre as well as to make his own mark. For that, he borrows from the classics as Sebastian is inspired by the greats. Much of what is said about jazz in the movie can be transferred to the musical genre in the real world. As Sebastian refuses to adapt to contemporary customs or tastes and is adamant about sticking to the old style, Chazelle doesn’t shy away from not falling into line with modern viewing patterns but goes all-in with the opening musical and dance sequence on the highway. However, this is not to say that Chazelle made an antiquated, dusty piece of cinema. He modernizes the formula to make it more appealing to modern audiences while keeping in mind what he and many others cherish in the classics. Equally, Sebastian has to learn that his clinging to the past will not do well with audiences. This is where John Legend comes into play.
How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist. You’re holdin’ on to the past but jazz is about the future. (John Legend’s character to Gosling’s Sebastian)
Although Legend’s song (Start a Fire) is miles away from what Sebastian intends to promote, it is a pretty catchy song – and I believe it is on purpose. If Chazelle were to criticize the appropriation of classic elements towards modern habits, this would have been an obviously bad song and he would have chosen someone with less amazing a voice. Obviously, one still has to honor the tradition to not lose the spirit, as Chazelle does when he heavily borrows from many classical musical movies; but to escape extinction, a fine balance between perpetually redefining this spirit and being inspired by the greats is required.
The necessity of compromise when successfully pursuing one’s dreams also becomes evident in the final scene. In a very effective montage, which is the bravest moment of the movie, Chazelle shows what might have become of Mia and Sebastian, the happy marriage most viewers want them to have, if one of them had sacrificed their dream, only to then undo this idyllic vision and show the real situation. What could have become a harsh destruction of Hollywood propagating to follow your dreams is actually portrayed as a realistic and almost pragmatic notion of “You can’t have it all” or rather “Some sacrifices are worth making”, as both Mia and Sebastian seem to be okay (some might even say happy) with how their lives developed. Even though you can see subtle remains of wondering “What, if…”, especially in Gosling’s face, and the associated disappointment about the sheer bad luck that it just shouldn’t be with these two as a couple (who seemed to clearly being made for each other and who even stated they will always love each other), the ending was not a downer but rather a bittersweet endorsement and advocacy of aspiring to accomplish one’s goals and making sacrifices along the way.
Or to say it in Chazelle’s words:
This is the dream – it’s conflict and compromise and … it’s very, very exciting. (Sebastian)
This striving for perfection also pervaded Chazelle’s breakout hit Whiplash, which is even more dependent on the vibrant and energetic nature of jazz, and seems to heavily be on the mind of this ambitious filmmaker (Chazelle also wrote the script for La La Land)– and his dedication to pursuing dreams seems to have worked out, as he became the youngest director to ever win an Academy Award, following what was the best movie of 2014 for many.
Furthermore, the film is symbolically rich. One of the more obvious hints is the closing of the old cinemas that showed the classics. More importantly, there’s the strobe light at Sebastian’s concert with John Legend that mirrors how Mia’s image of him is shattered, as well as the delicate soufflé that collapses and is burnt, which obviously symbolizes the fragile relationship. This is another testimony to how well thought-out and rounded Chazelle’ vision is and how the movie’s form fits its content.
all images (including the title image): © by Arthaus Filmverleih, taken from the official German website