La La Land had to have been a major risk for writer/director Damien Chazelle. Everything about it flies in the face of today’s blockbuster driven, comic book-obsessed Hollywood. It doesn’t pander. It’s doesn’t condescend. It doesn’t bombard our senses with explosions or fight sequences or overactive CGI. Instead, it combines the innocence and imagination of old-time romantic musicals with contemporary settings and themes. Characters break into song and dance at a moment’s notice, only to break out of it in the same length of time. It celebrates simple things like falling in love and encourages one to dream. This is a magical, exuberant experience – one of the year’s best films.
The very title makes its Los Angeles setting abundantly clear, and indeed, the film is a visual dossier of landmarks, views, and street locations. But you never get the sense that Chazelle is trying to make a tourism commercial, nor does he express Woody Allen-esque cynicism or contempt. He has made a loving valentine to the city. It’s as if he remembers the idealized way Los Angeles was viewed in Hollywood’s Golden Age, not as a laughing stock but as the dream factory, the place you went to get your big break. Even in the midst of a traffic jam on a freeway overpass, which the film opens with, Chazelle has the drivers emerge from their cars and joyfully dance and sing.
Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is a barista on the lot of Warner Bros. Studios, while Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is barely gets by as a keyboardist in everything from upscale restaurants to ‘80s cover bands at pool parties. They each have a dream; Mia is an aspiring actress, while Sebastian wants to parlay his deep love of jazz into the opening of a nightclub. Their initial meeting was pure happenstance, and not especially friendly. As the story progresses, their initial reluctance to involve themselves romantically fades, although that doesn’t mean we aren’t always aware of the differences between the two. Mia is clearly not all that interested in jazz, despite eventual claims that she has grown to love it, while Sebastian certainly doesn’t express any great love for show business.
There are moments of great romance between them, almost all of which involve very theatrical gestures and transitions, such as people freezing in time, ambient lights dimming, and solitary spotlights brightly fading in; there’s an especially beautiful sequence in which they waltz in and around the Griffith Observatory, culminating with them entering the main domed theater, floating into the air, and twirling amongst a projection of the stars. In spite of all this, it isn’t their love we notice so much as their willingness to push each other into pursuing their dreams, no matter what. This happens even when they veer off onto paths they weren’t looking to travel down, Mia writing and starring in a one-woman play, Sebastian playing keyboards in a band fronted by his former friend (John Legend), who has a very different definition of what jazz really is.
Whether or not they end up together at the end isn’t the point. The point is that they make each other see the importance of making their dreams come true. It’s also to call them out on decisions that clearly aren’t in their best interests. It’s quite simple, really: If you’re doing something that isn’t making you happy, then don’t do it. Walk the extra mile. Take the necessary steps so that you can do something that makes you happy, even if it means having to make a few sacrifices along the way. Some people like to point out that life doesn’t work this way. Maybe it doesn’t. But blast it all, why can’t it? The movie is audacious in that it actually believes it can. Some people are audacious in the same way. People like Chazelle. No one who is “grounded” or “realistic” would be able to make a movie like this.
I have no doubt that the singing voices of both Stone and Gosling, now having been paired in the movies three times, are going to be heavily criticized. It’s not that they can’t sing; it’s just that their voices don’t fit the classic criteria of talented. What naysayers need to keep in mind that La La Land is the rare kind of musical where singing chops are less important than the emotions conveyed in the songs; Gosling’s voice may not carry all the way back to the balcony section, but his character’s feelings come across loud and clear. The same can be said for Stone’s character. And feeling is exactly what a story like this demands. I’ve been waiting all year for a movie this wonderful to come along. If you see it, there’s a good chance you’ll feel the same way.