La La Land heartbreakingly portrays the highs and lows of chasing dreams. Though packaged as a high-energy feel-good musical, it contains poignant notes that make it great.
I didn’t like La La Land when I watched it. Frankly, I was disappointed. I was even shining off a spot in my top ten movies of the year for it. I love musicals and grew going to see Broadway shows. Singin’ In the Rain is one of my favorite movies of all time. Needless to say, I wanted to love this movie. So, when I walked out of the theater less than enthralled I was confused. I couldn’t bring myself to give it a score because I was so sure I missed something. As the week trudged on, I told people how disappointed I was in the movie. I couldn’t understand how it missed my expectations by so much.
However, then I realized that the tune stuck in my head all week were the opening notes from “Another Day of Sun,” the movie’s opening number. So, I went on Spotify and played the soundtrack. I quickly realized how much I really loved the musical’s first half. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the second half was a narrative misstep, even though the ending stuck with me. I gave the movie a score — I won’t tell you it, but it’s low — and carried on with my post-La La Land week. Then, I saw a tweet that had the Merriam-Webster definition of the term “La La Land”:
“A euphoric dreamlike state detached from the harsher realities of life.”
I smacked myself on the head for my stupidity. I realized that I, in fact, missed something. Finally, I was able to give La La Land a proper score (spoiler: it’s a lot higher than my initial one). But let’s backtrack for a second. Damian Chazelle, who directed Whiplash, my favorite movie of 2014, set out to make a movie-musical that transported audiences back to the genre’s heyday in the 40s and 50s. Though, he was careful to balance its timeless plot with the modern issues that face the artists of our generation.
La La Land tells the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). She, like so many people, followed her dreams of stardom to Los Angeles. However, she finds that success isn’t as easy to obtain as the movies say they are. We see her spend her time working at the Starbucks on the Warner Brothers’ studio lot between auditions that often don’t go well — the casting directors couldn’t care less, she’s just one of many of her “type”, someone walks in the room. However, her love for movies is what keeps her going.
On the other side of things, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has dreams of his own. He hopes to own a jazz club one day. His love of jazz runs deep. When someone tells him that they don’t love jazz, like Mia, he sets out to make them appreciate it. However, he has his own problems. Mainly, as a character later in the movie says, jazz is dying… and he has no money. He spends his nights playing Christmas carols in a restaurant under the watchful eye of the owner (J.K. Simmons).
The movie begins with an absolutely enthralling opening number that takes place on a freeway in the middle of Los Angeles. Yes, an actual freeway. The song, “Another Day of Sun,” perfectly sums up both the disappointment and allure of chasing dreams in a town where everyone is doing the exact same. In one magnificent take, which may possibly one of the best of all time, Chazelle sets the time and place in LA with free runners, salsa dancers, and even a trick bicycle rider in this tightly choreographed number. I don’t know how he was able to pull it off, but it is one of the most magnificent scenes committed to film this year.
As the film unfolds, we realize that Mia is still in the Honeymoon phase of living in LA. Every day is just another step towards her eventual ascension to the top. Sebastian, alternatively, believes that his true artistry is already there, but yet to be appreciated. When the two bump into each other — at first literally and then coincidentally throughout the movie — they are sure they’re not falling for each other. This is told through “A Lovely Night,” a classic Rogers-Astaire tap dance routine. However, slowly they realize that they are, in fact, falling for each other.
The first half of the movie plays out like the musicals it’s based on. However, key decisions elevate it to an even higher level. A bright primary color motif is used in the costuming throughout, which gives it a whimsical quality. That coupled with the cinematography that makes strong use of lighting and color, shows us this city where anything is possible that Mia sees. It almost feels like the movie has a rhythm all its own apart from what’s happening on screen. Thanks to editor Tom Cross, who also cut Whiplash, La La Land moves at a lighting pace. That is until we get to Summer — the movie is split up into the four seasons.
Slowly encouraging each other, Mia and Sebastian start to make moves towards their dreams. Mia, tired of waiting for her perfect part to come, starts to write a one-woman show. Sebastian, looking to raise money for his club, joins a band fronted by former classmate Keith (John Legend). By the time we get to this point the musical scenes start to become few. The bright colors that flooded the costumes and sets fade away. On my first viewing, this is where the movie lost me. I was confused as to why this bright and romantic musical faded away before my eyes. However, this is why the definition of “La La Land” snapped me back to reality. This was completely by design.
The difference between the two parts is stark. However, it’s essential for Chazelle to suggest that the dreamlike stupor that both Mia and Sebastian were in is gone. Reality sets in, and you know what they say about reality. As they attempt to be together and follow their respective dreams, they learn how trying balancing both is. It all comes to a head in an incredibly emotional scene that is done completely in close-up, which pushes the actors to the edge of their abilities.
It’s the distinction that I missed. Until I read the definition of the term “La La Land” I thought that the movie just made a tonal misstep. In reality, it was a genius shift from a movie about a couple’s passion for their crafts to one about alienation brought on by our generation’s attitude of never truly doing enough. La La Land is a brilliant study of an entire generation that wants to do it all. We want to be happy and successful and doing what we love. However, La La Land portrays the sad realities.
As phenomenal as the craft is — nearly every shot, beat, and set is perfect — La La Land would be a lesser movie without Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Gosling, who I loved in The Nice Guys earlier this year, again proves his comedic ability. However, it’s his interplay with Stone that makes him great here. He’s there to support her. After all, at a certain point, this becomes her movie. But who is Ginger Rogers without Fred Astaire? Stone, on the other hand, gives one of the best performances of the year and makes it look easy. From perfect comedic timing to crushing the film’s 11 o’clock number, she is an emotional powerhouse. She proves that she is one of the best actresses of our generation. Their partnership and chemistry makes you swoon and then breaks your heart.
La La Land isn’t going to be for everyone. Some are going to be expecting a straight musical like I did or not completely buy the walk and talk sequences. However, the magic of the on-screen musical will hook you from the beginning. At its core, it’s a romance for our generation. Passion, love, dreams, disappointments, and alienation are its themes. But it never tries to be bigger than it is. Like all the great romances, it starts with the central couple. Mia and Sebastian’s love is one that they need at that time and place. However, like so many modern lovers, the timing never seems right. While La La Land is escapist entertainment for a good chunk, its greatest parts lie in the realities, while not harsh, that plague our dreams. But hey, here’s to the fools who dream.