OP-ROB RATING: STARTER
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring young actress grinding out a living as a barista in Los Angeles while she pursues her dream of making it onto the big screen. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a talented pianist who is stuck playing cheap gigs in restaurants while he gathers money to open his own Jazz club that will play “true” Jazz. Through a series of happenstance meetings all over the city of Los Angeles, Mia and Sebastian eventually fall in love. The two share an appreciation for the past. For Mia it is the classic Hollywood movies that inspired her to pursue acting; for Sebastian it is the fading Jazz of legends like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. Most importantly, the two share the same struggle of desperately eeking out a life in the City of Angels while reaching for their dreams.
Such is the premise of “La La Land”, a musical romance written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The last film that Chazelle wrote and directed was “Whiplash” which came out in 2014 to widespread acclaim. Though it wasn’t a musical, “Whiplash” was also wrapped up in music culture, depicting the hardships of an aspiring jazz drummer in a competitive New York City music school. For “La La Land”, Chazelle has abandoned the gloomy streets of New York for the sunny avenues of Los Angeles. In fact, the film opens with a song titled “Another Day of Sun”, in which people stuck in a typical L.A. traffic jam get out of their cars and dance and sing about the wonderful weather among many other stereotypical aspects of L.A.
The contrast between the reality of Los Angeles and the dreamer’s fantasy of Los Angeles is an interesting comparison that plays out throughout much of the film. In the opening scene, the joke is obvious: the traffic is unbelievably bad… but at least it’s always sunny! In other scenes the comparison is more subtle. For example, after Mia and Sebastian start dating, Mia speaks with her parents on a phone call about her upcoming one-woman play production and Sebastian’s plans to open a jazz club. Her parents ask questions like, “Who’s paying for the production?” and “Has he rented out space for the club?” Mia answers in the negative, revealing how far they are from actually reaching their dreams. It is moments like these that prove Chazelle’s skill as a writer and director. While the musicality of Mia and Sebastian’s journey may say one thing, the reality is not so whimsical.
“La La Land” is also bolstered by excellent performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. There is strong chemistry between these two performers making Mia and Sebastian’s romance feel real and not forced. However, Stone and Gosling’s strongest moments occur when their characters face failure one their own in the film. Mia attends several auditions that are cut short by snotty talent scouts or interrupted by rude production workers. Sebastian deviates from the tacky Christmas set list one night at a restaurant and is promptly fired. These moments are masterfully acted out by two performers at the top of their game in Stone and Gosling.
However “La La Land”, with all of its strengths, is ultimately a frustrating film. There are so many meaningful moments that are lost throughout the story. By the end of the film I found myself questioning what “La La Land” really had to say. Follow your dreams? Be true to yourself? The end of the movie suggests a variety of possibilities, but none are very clear. Mia and Sebastian both achieve their lifetime dreams, but lose each other in the process. Also, the entertaining and poignant contrast between reality Los Angeles and the fantasy Los Angeles is heavily tilted toward the latter towards the end of the film. After all, both characters “make it”, while most people who move out to L.A. waste away as baristas and restaurant workers auditioning for roles they never land. It is clear that Chazelle has many dreams with “La La Land”, but in the end fails to truly fulfill them. A film so rich in content should have more to offer than a half-hearted statement akin to, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”
Despite the disappointments I still found myself wanting to dance out the theater. While “La La Land” is not particularly profound in meaning, the film is simply alive. “La La Land” is too well done and musically satisfying to dismiss, even if it misses a few notes.