A step forward isn’t necessarily a step in the right direction. If some of us turn our heads to the future and see nothing of particular interest—music made by and for robots, cars that spell out our every move—we might want to comb through the past and pick out a nice, cozy spot. In this spot, imperfect music could be made by calloused fingers and there would be something a little romantic about being totally and completely lost. “La La Land” is a postcard from that dream world, signed by Damien Chazelle, writer and director.
Emma Stone is Mia, a struggling actress who works at a coffee shop inside a studio lot, which means her customers consist of pirates, astronauts and cowboys. Between shifts, she hops from audition to audition, reciting half-baked lines for two-bit roles, my favorite of which is the inner city teacher (“you be trippin’,” says one of the students, to which she replies, in a pathetic attempt to relate, “no, Jamal, you be trippin'”). Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist fighting a tide of Christmas songs and electronic music, whose hole-in-the-wall apartment has more records than all the other objects combined. He lives, in his own words, “on the ropes,” and his master plan is to let life hit him until it gets tired and then strike back. If it’s lonely at the top, it’s a party at the bottom, and it’s there that Mia and Sebastian collide. This makes the third big-screen collaboration for Gosling and Stone, following “Crazy, Stupid, Love” in 2011 and Gangster Squad in 2013, and from the look of things, these two may have the chemistry and talent to be the Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis of this generation — but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here.
The cinematography — headed by Linus Sandgren, combined with the creative vision of Chazelle — brings a level of quality that you just don’t see anymore. That comes primarily because of the decision to film the production in Cinemascope — the primary method used for movies in the 1950s and 60s. Additionally, one thing to take note of is that rather than jumping from angle to angle for complex visual dynamics, many of the scenes are shot in longer takes, calling back to the classic days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Visually speaking, the subtle vibrance of the colors in various scenes really sets the mood well and creates an entirely different atmosphere for every location we come across throughout this romance. Their story is a Technicolor merry-go-round of red hair, yellow dresses, green curtains and purple skies; and they’re constantly under the watchful eye of celluloid heroes, who are, no doubt, judging. Chazelle takes the slightly askew reality that comes with a musical and pushes it into pure fantasy—characters do not break into song; they break into another world. After becoming disillusioned with auditions, Mia takes one more because it’s for a high-profile project. Instead of having her read stale lines, they simply ask her to tell a story. What follows can only be described as movie magic. The lights kindly step out, save for one on Mia, and she daintily but assuredly performs a dirge for daydreamers—not to be confused with their nighttime counterparts.
The film’s beautiful, floaty music is composed by Justin Hurwitz, and to put it simply, he has crafted a score that stays with viewers long after leaving the theater. If ever you’ve been down and out with the only flicker of hope coming in the form of a hopeless romance, then you’ll easily find yourself whistling the melody from “City of Stars.” If you’ve rebelled against the mundane to chase a passion, though you may not have been good enough, you may take solace in Mia’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”
In case you’re curious to know, yes that is indeed Gosling playing the piano. Both Stone and Gosling had to pick up some new skills for this movie and refresh others along the way. Stone had previous studied palm dancing in her younger years, she picked up tap, jazz and ballroom dancing for this role. Gosling on the other hand had to take on tap dancing and piano lessons to familiarize himself with the life of his character.
Like in “Whiplash,” Chazelle finds interest in the lives of the ambitious—those who are cursed with the impulse to be great in a world that’s not looking for great, just a guy who can play “Jingle Bells” while customers eat their Cobb salads. Much of the comedy comes from this melancholia, such as Mia walking out of an audition, only to be surrounded by better-looking versions of herself, or when Sebastian, in order to pay the bills, must suffer the ultimate indignity for a trained musician: playing the keytar for an ’80s cover band. Finally, a director who shares my distaste for the ’80s.
The two leads are impeccably cast, as they feel simultaneously old-fashioned and modern, much like the movie itself, which keeps it from dipping into imitation. Stone has those round, expressive eyes that predate sound, while Gosling wears that disheveled mug that wouldn’t look out of place between a fedora and a raincoat. And yet, they feel very much of the here and now.
Somehow Chazelle has managed to be a revolutionary while being a traditionalist, holding onto the past to create a beautiful future. At once old-fashioned and modern, cynical and optimistic, melancholy and joyous, “La La Land” is a love story of feelings, not words. You’ve seen stories of struggling dreamers before, but never with this much dream.
5 out of 5 stars