There must be some people on this earth whom it behooves to live everyday as if it were told through a musical, those who believe that — if anatomical research can be applied in such a way — the human body was designed too minuscule to reflect its colossal capacity for affection. The concept is more likely exercised in a metaphorical way by said population of opportunists, but it humors one’s self to imagine the realm in its most extroverted sense; joy must be expressed by swinging from the base of the nearest lamp post and shouting to anyone who bothers to hear you; skipping is the only rational form of transportation; even on a musical’s worst days, you can never sink lower than shuffling your feet and whistling a sad tune.
If there ever was an era that could be defined by this hyper-optimistic philosophy (I’d guess around the time people realized they could finally microwave stuff), then it must have been short-lived — it has been many moons since we’ve read an opinionated article online with a squeaky clean comments section to spare. Current times provide good reasons for concern, but doggone it, bliss these days is too darn often lumped in with ignorance (though I know there are a handful who are content calling out news too “fake” for their liking). It’s an emotional void that we like to acknowledge but hesitate to fill; there are still those individuals mentioned in the opening lines of this review, but there are surely not as many as there used to be.
How ironic it is, then, that we have La La Land released to us in the midst of a post-election year drenched in paranoia, sourness, and an overall distaste for anything that doesn’t involve sulking. This is an unwelcoming culture for bright and cheery subject material, and writer and director Damien Chazelle appears to be testing the waters right down to the very title; after all, can you truly speak it aloud in a somber tone without kidding yourself? Some would like to believe so, perhaps those who stir the strongest retaliation against this playful conjecture and aim it toward a contrived philosophical disconnect they believe faces the very audience the movie is trying to touch.
Speaking of which, I have more bad news for the folks disenchanted by the “musical” tag: La La Land is indeed a musical — very much so, in fact. It splurges in considerable, at times astronomical (quite literally), amounts of song and dance, and while it’s all visually charming, it is there, both for its admirers to adore and its critics to hate. Though it would be borderline cruel to dismiss the film by its components rather than by the sum of its parts, Chazelle is quick to cozy up with the former — an opening number briskly informs us that the movie to follow will be anything but commentary (let’s face it — with a song named “Another Day Of Sun,” the writer may very well be trying to chase the grumblers out of the theater as soon as possible). Our impression of car horns and automobile hullabaloo — if we can make the Chicago analogy — usually marks incessant exclamation. This film’s leading step — a single, smooth shot of a clogged freeway — still hearkens to the monotonous sound of traffic, but here, the noise is meant to be broken. Cue an invisible eighty-piece orchestra, and drivers are soon jumping onto the hoods of their cars, flowing in one synchronized movement.
This scene works. (1) The progression is careful yet loose and fluid, (2) the dancers are into it, and (3) depending on how much you’ve bought into the premise by now, it’s the appropriate thing to establish right off the bat. If one average civilian can find something to be this happy about, then in order for logic to march in suit, I declare that everyone and their sister must join in. La La Land does not wait to settle into its groove.
While this flashy depiction of Los Angeles has an exploratory core, it’s more or less a case study, one that belongs to Mia and Sebastian, two young hopefuls each trying to accomplish their big break in the land of showbiz. If their aspirations suggest that they’re larger than life, then at least their bittersweet escapades between spotlights humanize their appearances. Mia (Emma Stone), searching for a door to professional acting, is almost always wrapped in an audition, soon to watch its slip through her fingers. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a chamber musician, is overqualified for the lame set lists he’s contractually bound to. He’s surrounded by squares, and he strives for something to put him in charge of his own life; this, unknowingly, he shares in common with Mia.
Although these two do not immediately recognize one another as their escape (like any youthful equals, they start off as each other’s delightful opposites), their resilience is admirable, and inevitably yet reasonably, their orbit transforms into an affinity. They soon land in one of the film’s most electric and stupefying moments; after stumbling upon the instantly recognizable halls of the Griffith Observatory (their careless wandering unmistakably plays off of the building’s iconic connection with Rebel Without a Cause), they share an instantaneous, wordless waltz in what I can only describe as… space.
No, La La Land is not one to abide by the confines of reality, but what musical is, and more importantly, what musical should? Our personalities are all polluted with self-consciousness and trepidation to some degree; it only makes sense for transparent, unabashed romantics to amplify their sensitivity past the bounds of regular interaction. Mr. Chazelle is a perfect fit for this archetype, though he is hardly detached from the realist; if anything, he must comprehensively navigate through our reality in order to properly bend it. He certainly doesn’t mean to say that the couple is breaking the concrete laws of science to defy gravity, for they fail not only to apply here but even to cross the mind. It’s rather that these characters are floating with such a spiritual buoyancy that the air surrounding them cannot resist lifting them as it does their aura — there’s a difference, and your heart just has to know what it is. Even as I write, I find myself at a loss for words. How else am I to respond other than to state my approval? Yes, this is how it feels to fall in love. This, from experience, is not merely a metaphor; it is vivid, tactile, and real.
La La Land may simply derive its nostalgia from the fact that we haven’t had anything like it in a while. Some can argue that it falls a little too easily into a large net of audience sympathy, though I beg the opposition to realize that there is a fine line between inheriting it and earning it. For all its pageantry, La La Land does a swell job avoiding being cheesy. The production is beautifully textured from its color palette to its costume design, and the sparks of grandeur that so frequently catch during the film’s churn are equal parts manifest and delicate. In full, this is a passionate tribute to studio magic, with a bond so palpable that it can be traced, appealingly, right back to the director’s chair. La La Land may have started as a script, but it is brought to life on and by the screen; the movie is fun because of the artists in front of the camera, but it’s memorable because of the artist behind it.
Chazelle, as he relayed through his previous and stupendous Whiplash, has a refined taste for music. Most of this is jazz — not all, but most — which is tough to sell to a generation who doesn’t exactly dig Charlie Parker anymore. It’s a good thing he’s a populist; his form is sleek without being pretentious. The cinematography is closer to the threshold of these two disjoint decades than the “old-fashioned” banner lets on; in discussion, I’ve heard Chazelle’s technique accurately labelled as a homogeneous blend of the sweeping panoramic and the clustered hand-held. It’s true that Chazelle’s movement of the lens can be frenetic at points, a bit resembling a jack rabbit in a time machine; while the method would likely be agitating in the wrong hands, he makes it one of his most exciting trademarks. The 32-year-old director loves diving into the heat of the instant; despite his darting cuts and rapid stop-and-start beats, you’ll rarely see him leave a scene before he’s gotten enough of it. Different settings contain different nooks and crannies that only pop when you give them the attention. Much like the old timers at the underground jazz clubs Sebastian and Mia hang around, Chazelle’s an improviser at heart; whatever goes goes.
As with most every musical, the plot can be equated with its embedded, charismatic personalities, and there’s no real question that Emma Stone is the true reason La La Land connects on this front; she delivers one of the best performances of her career to date. What a joy it is to see her redefine the concept of traditionalism, all the while tearing down the thin residue of patriarchal tendencies that brainwashed many a nuclear family throughout post-war America. What is it about her that embodies a youthful, intelligent, flapper-like demeanor while cultivating an elegant maturity a performer of her field can usually only master with age? When Chazelle delegates to his actors, it is Stone who takes the wheel. That doesn’t necessarily count against her costar Ryan Gosling, but it’s rather clear he’s trying to keep up. If the producers were looking for a hunk, they have found one in him, though he often looks like a freeze frame more than a moving picture.
Perhaps we will never know what Miles Teller — who I’m told was in the serious running for the lead role — could have done with the character. Perhaps there isn’t more to Sebastian than there is already. He’s a dreamer, but he’s a bigger pragmatist, and by his standards, his dreams will only take him so far. Mia is there to put him in check; she’s willing to hold on to the end of a rope for longer than most. Without her, he wouldn’t be able to grow. Then again, without him, she wouldn’t be able to experience.
La La Land doesn’t lose sight of the ambitions it fosters; in watching the film, we aren’t giving up our care as much as we are investing it. Damien Chazelle has once again made a movie worth our time, mostly because he urges us to think about what it means to live it.
My mind keeps returning to a brief, hushed scene that spills over from a chaotic, overly celebratory festival into the still, dimly lit bathroom off to its corner. Stone, whose Mia has crept away from the party, now gazes into the mirror. To the sole accompaniment of a piano, she sings softly, sadly, of the dull, ill-fated likes of her fashionable and oblivious company: “Is someone in the crowd the only thing you really see?”
Who’s to say we aren’t just another face in the crowd? You may not be as worried about your standing on the matter as others are, but I guess you won’t know until you see how it feels to jump up and swing from that lamp post.
Block Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★