La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) USA

Reviewed by Gustav Arndal. Viewed at a special screening at Antioch University, Santa Barbara.

What more can be said about La La Land? Its virtues have been sung and its flaws have been pointed out relentlessly through its release and onward to its position as Oscar darling. Within this maelstrom of praise and backlash, it can be hard to take a step back and look at this movie not just as a moment in film history, but as a story.

And what a story it is.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Seb, an aspiring actress and jazz musician respectively. Both are creative souls who have come to Los Angeles to follow their dreams and hone their craft, and we follow them as they meet, fall in love, experience the highs and lows of the creative world, and eventually find what they were searching for.

La La Land is a musical inspired by Hollywood’s golden age, with stunning choreography, memorable tunes and long dance sequences. In many ways it’s a film about Hollywood itself, a love letter to what writer and director Damien Chazelle loves about LA. It’s easy to see its 14 nominations as a sign of the Academy’s self obsession, but you’d be ignoring the fact that this is also a deeply personal story. Chazelle wanted to do this film way before he became a breakout star with Whiplash, and certainly long before he had hopes of sweeping the Oscars.

Whether you think this movie is worthy of the praise it’s gotten depends on how well you think it balances these two sides. At once a blockbuster running on the fuel of star power and broad emotions, and an intimate look at an artist’s struggle in a harsh world. At once a film where characters start singing from their hearts, and an understated, realistic depiction of a complex relationship. And if you ask me, Damien Chazelle sticks the landing with stunning grace.

Ryan and Emma are magnificent. They carry the film through tonal shifts from the outlandish and silly to the grounded and heartbreaking with sheer force of charisma, and their chemistry is really believable. It’s no small feat to show such range and star power in one movie – it is a sight to behold.

This is a film that embraces its film-ness. Even when people aren’t dancing through the cosmos or on top of traffic, there’s a clear artifice to the choice of color, costume, lighting and so on. It’s noticeable but not distracting, ultimately adding something to the movie. This is what Damien Chazelle understands: the language of cinema exists to express what words cannot. He conveys feelings, hopes and anxieties through the language of film as well as dialogue, and it’s the reason this had to be a musical.

And the music… man, these songs… Some musicals fall into the trap of breaking out in song whenever the story gets going, the numbers being more of an obligation than a choice, but La La Land handles it with care. Emotions build in a scene until a certain point where the only way for characters to express their feelings is to break into song and/or dance, and the tone shifts back to “reality” so smoothly you barely see the seams.

Those emotions are as big as they are important, especially to creatives like Chazelle. This movie goes beyond the simple message of “work hard, follow your dreams!” and instead asks you to take a hard look at the reality of ambition. Following your dreams is hard work, says La La Land, and you can’t be sure you can really make it or how much you will have to give up to do what you love. Is it worth it to follow your passion? Would you sacrifice a chance of happiness for success?

In the most stunning examples of acting I’ve seen this year, Emma Stone stands still in front of the audience and sings us a story. A story of hope and foolishness, of heartbreak and dreams, a culmination of every internal conflict her character has had, and it moved me in a way few films ever have.

And the song makes a return along with every motif and every event of the film in a wonderfully poignant crescendo at the very end. It is pure, raw emotion only capturable by the magic of movies. If studios decide to make more movies like this, then we might be in for a revitalization of the musical genre.

La La Land is an achievement of film making. It is moving, funny, memorable, heartwarming and heartbreaking. It has profound things to say about what a life well lived means, and at the end you’re left feeling at once happy for Mia’s and Seb’s successes and saddened by what could have been if they had not been dreamers.

Here’s to the ones who dream. 

[image taken from imdb]

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