Damien Chazelle’s musical “La La Land” is a delightful, energetic motion picture experience. For those who thought Chazelle’s last film “Whiplash” was too intense will be soothed and seduced by this film’s easygoing, vivacious charm. From the very first frame—a retro version of the Summit Entertainment logo, “La La Land” descends into a magical, heavily nostalgic romp. A love letter to old school Hollywood musicals and studio films in general. A love letter to the art of pure jazz, which is not relaxing background fair but a music genre rife with conflict and spontaneous ingenuity.
Los Angeles is transformed into a glamorous, sparkling dreamscape where there are still independent movie theaters that play nothing but old films and cozy coffee shops with live Jazz performances. The cinematography by Linus Sandegren is fluid and dynamic—the way the camera constantly swoops, glides through and spins around the film’s environment is dizzying and electrifying. The film’s color palette glossy and vibrant—the nighttime scenes have a beautiful, slightly mysterious blue tint to them, while the streetlights emit a warmly romantic glow. Chazelle has a knack for making films that leave you feeling buzzed.
And then there’s the magnificent onscreen duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Gosling plays Sebastian an arrogant Jazz pianist who wants to open his own Jazz club, while Stone is the wide-eyed aspiring actress Mia containing the usual Emma Stone spunkiness that provides the perfect foil for Gosling’s bumbling, self absorbed persona. The two struggling artists get entangled in an old school romantic comedy, they can’t stand each other at first but before long that tension gives way to affectionate ribbing, before their collective struggle in pursuing their dreams solidifies their romantic relationship (and also comes to threaten it).
Gosling and Stone have such effortless chemistry, their interactions containing an infectious screwball rhythm. Watching them walk and talk down an artificial street on a studio back lot (a self conscious ode to the mingling of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall in “Annie Hall” or Jesse and Celine in the “Before” trilogy, among other famous romantic film duos), share a warm embrace via piano duet fills you with utter joy.
Though perhaps the most surprising and emotionally resonating thing about “La La Land” is the focus on the agony of pursuing a full time gig in an artistic field. Constant rejection and rotten luck (going all the way to a film audition only to be rejected within thirty seconds), the gut-wrenching feeling of going nowhere, those moments of private anxiety when you ask yourself: am I any good at this? Why do I even bother? And then the moment afterwards when you lift yourself out of that foul mood and continue on, fighting to do the thing you love. It’s an exciting, unstable, terrifying life of maddening persistence that (a life I currently find myself in) that Chazelle is clearly sympathetic towards.
That being said, Chazelle acknowledges the stubbornness and ego that can hold young aspiring artists back—being so committed to your dream, the exact vision of said dream that you’re resistant to change or adaption, and are therefore continually stuck in a rut. This is exhibited most clearly in Sebastian’s character, who loves pure Jazz and wants to play nothing but pure Jazz, who then complains about how Jazz is dying because he can’t open the pure Jazz club of his dreams. Chazelle takes opportunities to mock Sebastian’s snobbiness (and Gosling’s performance is self aware), by making him play in a tacky band that covers eighties new wave snythpop as a scut job, for example.
Ultimately you may have to modify your dreams as you grow up in order to make progress. At one point, one of Sebastian’s old school friends Keith (John Legend), tells him to stop talking about the “death of Jazz” and concentrate on the “future of Jazz” saying, “how can you be a revolutionary if you’re a traditionalist?” Being stuck in the past, being stuck in your fantasy, continually sulking about being unsuccessful, isn’t always productive. You may have to adapt your mindset, adjust your plan, allow yourself to go down other paths to follow your passion.
Chazelle is supportive and admiring of his dreamer characters as they pursue their wild visions (one of the songs is all about “those fools who dream”) but this other more critical/cautious view of aspiring artists is strongly felt
You may love “La La Land” for totally different reasons—it’s utter charm, the colorful music numbers, Gosling and Stone, the sweet and sourness of its romantic story etc. While I liked all these things, the picture’s focus on the rocky path of pursuing a creative endeavor (and the ego of the young artist) resonated with me on a deeply personal level; an angle I wasn’t expecting to find in this lavish, nostalgia fueled musical.