Food. Air. Probably shelter. These are what you and almost everyone else consider the basic needs of human survival. To writer/director Damien Chazelle, however, there’s only one thing on that list: passion. His entire oeuvre has been pointed toward this single point of discussion, and La La Land, both along with and in spite of its Golden Age of Hollywood trappings, is an amazingly stoic and melancholy expression of the nature of feeling.
It is, through and through, a musical comedy-drama. It follows the intermingling of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and wannabe jazz club owner Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in Los Angeles as they go from circumstantial enemies to lovers to, well, raw forces of human nature. Mia has never had luck pursuing her lifelong goal and Sebastian has only had the briefest taste of his before it was yanked away. These experiences form not only the basis of the movie but also the thickly woven foundation of these two immense characters.
Most amazingly is that it is unabashedly, almost brazenly unafraid of both wanting to be what it wants to be and achieving that state, neither of which are simple or easy tasks. It opens, for one, on a tremendous musical number, one that, during production, actually blocked off the entirety of the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange for a single six-minute take. The stalwart presentation sets the tone for the classical Hollywood veneer while the lyrical content establishes the idea of dreams clashing with reality and compromise.
It easily could put off a great deal of people, pushing to the far end of what most would accept as musical content. But it secretly operates as a moment of calibration, setting precisely what the viewer should expect so that it can then fulfill that promise and, later on, subvert it. In fact, it almost immediately smashes apart those expectations by flipping the meet cute on its head with Mia and Sebastian in the middle of this classically L.A. traffic jam (also known as everyday L.A. traffic).
That flip is key to the whole film. The entire outdoor take is decidedly modern and counter to almost every other scene, shots either actually having taken place on a set or purposefully made to look like a set, which is perhaps the greatest trademark of 30s and 40s Hollywood aesthetics. And that pushes straight through to the themes and narrative.
If Whiplash is the dire necessity of the triumph of a dream—of the fruits of passion ever ripening by whatever means—then La La Land is about the inescapable transactional nature of it. It’s not singleminded or myopic like the former, but it’s more about the way things tend to fall away as you get closer and closer to your goal, an accomplishment that seems to then bring all those things back in time if they warrant the return. It’s a clean organizational view that give wonderful contrast to the sharp directed chaos of Whiplash.
That sort of thematic baseness yet complex, nuanced emotional arcs isn’t something that comes from classical films. As the film swiftly dances along from season to season, tune to tune, it becomes clear that the marketing schtick of Golden Age musicals isn’t the meant of this film. It’s more like the peanut butter on top of the celery, a pleasing and familiar aperitif to encourage the deeper satisfaction of this indomitable statement.
That’s not to say, however, that the framework isn’t good. It’s fantastic, in fact. The way the movie uses musical motifs is brilliant, shaping and varying them for different shades of the same utility. The main sting singlehandedly swings between heartbreaking to heartwarming to heart-wrenching, amongst many other feelings across the heart-verb spectrum.
A good deal is thanks to Stone and Gosling in the lead roles, both fully capable song-and-dance actors. Admittedly, Gosling’s vocals carry the same slightly amorphous edges as his normal speaking voice, but it still works. These are two people so overflowing with charisma, it’s impossible to look away. Stone’s mating dance in one of their several meet cutes is damn near the most charming and smile-inducing thing you’ll ever see (next to her Jimmy Fallon lip sync clip, that is).
But their acting chops are at a full and raging 11, fully encapsulating the core of what these two are perhaps over idealized by Hollywood. Just good-looking, lovable romantics, but that’s really just the first act, if that. They quickly expand into dire, haggard, nearly broken humans, showcasing two vastly different but equally powerful depictions of ambition conflicting with other needs. (Lesser needs, if Chazelle has anything to say about it.) They each are deep, nuanced characters made engrossing by Stone and Gosling.
They’re beautiful. The film is gorgeous. It’s a rare beast, attempting something so few others in more than one way. And even rarer is the fact that it succeeds in all of them. Dancing and singing, complex narrative structures, a brave and uncompromising ending. It even bears down on several conceptions of the purely fantastical. From beginning to end, La La Land is a raw, undiluted experience, unashamed of what it is and what it wants the world to be.
Final Score: 10 out of 10