I said in my review for Moonlight that 2016 has been a pretty great year for movies (of which I still believe Moonlight is the best) despite being a pretty shitty year otherwise. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is emphatic proof of the former and yet is admittedly elevated by the latter. It’s cathartic to unwind with a bright, colorful, relatively light-hearted (yet consequential) musical to round out a rough year, but what’s more cathartic is that the movie is great.
It begins with a gorgeous opening dance number, where the rhythms of the various car horns and car radios in an LA traffic jam melt together into a staccato piano. Three shots are sneakily spliced together into one impressive long take (I thought it was one shot until I read otherwise), mostly tight close ups, with the camera climbing over cars and medians as much as the dozens of dancers. Chazelle said he used the long takes in the dance numbers to turn up their realism as much as he could, hoping to minimize the divide between a bygone style and a modern audience. In a Q&A with Scott Mantz in front of a packed West Los Angeles theater, Chazelle used the metaphor of boiling a frog to prod musical-averse audiences to buy-in (in that, if you do it gradually enough, they won’t notice that it’s happening). If the end result is the fantastic opening number and a 6-minute unbroken take in a Singin’ In The Rain-inspired sequence in front of a colorful magic-hour sky, then go ahead and boil me, Mr. Chazelle.
One of the drivers stuck in traffic is Mia (Emma Stone), living the cliched-because-it’s-true life of a struggling actress. Her chosen day job (just until her big break of course) is barista, but on the Warner Brother lot, getting as close as she can to her old Hollywood dreams. In the car behind her is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a broke jazz pianist degrading himself playing Jingle Bells for disinterested restaurantgoers to make ends meet. Seb (as he’s called) honking at Mia is the first of three chance encounters that leads to their romance, culminating in the utterly charming magic-hour dance sequence mentioned above. These repeated chance encounters show that, among the film’s observations of the parallels between love and art, chance is crucial to the success of either as much as compromise and the choices we make.
Both leads have artistic aspirations (to star in films and to open a jazz club), and both are struggling to get there, but the movie is a romance first and foremost. Both characters eventually find varied levels of success in their respective arts (both with their fair share of compromise), but the success comes suddenly for the most part. It doesn’t feel like the movie is building to whether or not they’ll make it as artists (i.e. that’s not what the movie’s about); it instead builds to how their art can coexist with their relationship.
If Whiplash was about sacrifice for greatness, then La La Land is about compromise. The compromises Mia and Seb are willing to make in their relationship for their art and what compromises they’re willing to make in their art for their relationship. This emphasis on the choices we make (for our dreams and for our relationships) sets the stage for one of the most incredible endings I’ve seen in a romance.
While it’s refreshing to see Gosling in something that’s more-or-less the exact opposite of mumblecore and the minimalistic style where Gosling has cut his teeth, Emma Stone is the star of the show. It’s technically a dual-protagonist story, but she is the more active protagonist, and when the movie focuses on the individuals rather than on the couple, her solo story gets more screen time. And honestly, she’s marvelous. So heart-breaking and sincere in her auditions, it makes us sympathize with her even more when no one ever gives her a second look. While Stone and Gosling are both perfectly passable dancers, it’s clear they’re not professionals, but that just seems to add to the realism (and the frog’s water gets hotter).
Even if you don’t think you like musicals (I’ve said less than flattering things over the years), at the very least, you have to appreciate the craft and the infectious tone. Not only is it beautifully shot throughout, it’s bright, colorful, bubbly, but still meaningful, with none of the camp but all of the sincerity. The dialogue is great, whether the leads are flirting, discussing their respective passions, or having a blowout fight about their relationship. Eventually, they both have to make impactful choices about their relationship and their art, and crucially, neither choice is really right or wrong, and in their blowout fight, neither Mia nor Seb is really right or wrong. They’re both just doing their best and their actions and points of view are entirely defensible (Hey, look! Nuance!).
While Gosling and Stone are great and their characters are interesting enough, they’re really the only characters in the movie. John Legend appears as an old friend of Seb’s, offering a high-paying, high-profile gig in a band that plays jazz-infused pop music and calls it jazz, but his sole purpose for existence is to provide Seb the opportunity to sell out. Mia has roommates that disappear after about five minutes and parents that appear but don’t speak. You get the picture. The story really is just two people.
But that’s enough. On the strength of its two leads and its undeniable charm, La La Land is a delight. And as a literal ode to dreamers, it’s a welcome dose of hopefulness to end the year.