Halfway through La La Land, would-be lovers Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) abscond to L.A.’s Griffith Observatory in the middle of an impromptu date. In the twilight, they explore the inexplicably empty observatory, ending up in the planetarium where – without explanation or preamble – they take flight, soaring off the ground to dance among the stars. It’s a moment that could’ve been corny, that could’ve been ridiculous … but I was floating right up there with them.
La La Land, director Damien Chazelle’s third feature (following the superlative Whiplash), is a modern musical. And given its nostalgic mood, its opening musical numbers, or even the way its black-and-white Academy ratio vanity card opens up into glorious colour CinemaScope, you’d be forgiven for expecting an equivalent to The Artist: a musical about musicals, a tribute to the form that pays homage to its forebears while telling a story about them.
But while the film is packed – packed! – with references to classic musicals, outside of its first pair of traditional numbers (“Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd”), it doesn’t follow the typical cinematic grammar of the musical. (Or, at least, the big Hollywood/Broadway musical that I’m familiar with – I’m far from an expert on the genre.) A few have commented that the lyrics in those two songs are low in the mix to the point of being inaudible, which cuts against the usual role of songs in a musical of providing emotional exposition.
Instead of using song and dance as a regularly-scheduled, almost schematic way of underlining big moments – a technique that once, presumably, felt revolutionary and yet now feels predictable – Chazelle applies his musical numbers with a fluency and flexibility that calls to mind the artistic medium he’s really interested in: jazz. “It’s conflict and it’s compromise.” These songs aren’t there to provide glorified, showtunes narration, but to make you feel. There’s some self-awareness, to be sure, as when Mia and Sebastian peer onto a soundstage that will be setting for the film’s final, fantastical performance. But it’s a mischaracterisation to call La La Land a musical about musicals.
The film is, though, deeply interested in art: how we make it, why we make it, how success is achieved. It’s framed as a romance-turned-relationship drama between Mia and Seb, a pair of aspiring artists (him a pianist, her an actress) who keep running into one another until they’re living with one another. But the content of their conversations is almost entirely about art: why they make it, what they want to do with it, why it’s important to them. Their relationship isn’t an idealised Technicolor romance, but an exploration of the interplay of artistic ideals and ambitions.
La La Land might not be about musicals directly, but it is interested in broader questions about art; if not, necessarily, the answers to these questions. When our two lovers finally get to know another, after a couple of contentious run-ins, they discuss their own feelings on art. They share an idealised, romantic view of the industry: Seb treasures a stool that belonged to Hoagy Carmichael, while Mia works on a studio lot underneath the window that Bogart and Bergman peered out of in Casablanca. But Seb clings to his traditionalist principles, refusing to play jolly Christmas tunes for more than a few minutes despite the entreaties of his boss (a swift JK Simmons cameo), whereas Mia is happy to take any opportunity that comes, auditioning for mediocre roles on mediocre television shows.
While one suspects Chazelle’s sensibilities are more in line with Seb’s – who tends to dominate early scenes, by virtue of Gosling’s rambunctious performance and the screenplay alike – the film doesn’t advocate for either perspective. As their relationship matures so too does each of their perspectives on art: Seb’s rigid traditionalism shifts into something more accommodating (aided both by Mia’s unintentional influence and a one-sided conversation with bandmate Keith (John Legend)), while Mia steps aside from the demoralising auditions to forge her own path with a one-woman play. This isn’t to say that La La Land doesn’t have any perspective at all – it’s dismissive of derivative television shows, franchise filmmaking and ‘80s pop music – but it’s a mistake to assume that Seb is acting as Chazelle’s mouthpiece. This isn’t a manifesto about how to make art, but an exploration of its underlying ideas.
Those ideas are at once nostalgic and contemporary, but again, there’s no suggestion that one is necessarily better than the other. Smart phones might interrupt romantic moments and and classic jazz bars might get turned into samba-tapas bars, but old isn’t always better: that 35 mm print might look amazing, but film burns and old theatres close.
This is all framed within what is, fundamentally, a fantasy. Mia and Seb are privileged compared to many would-be artists, with their families and friends providing enough financial support that they can, say, sabotage their day job out of principle or quit working as a barista and self-fund a play. Their breakthroughs – and ultimate successes – are born partly of their talent but also of their safety nets, their comparative wealth and, yes, their whiteness. The story being told here might be fantastical, but it is a sad fact of reality that relatively well-off, photogenic white people tend to find an easier path to artistic success than those coming from less privileged backgrounds – and I don’t think it’s a mark against La La Land that it (implicitly) acknowledges as much.
Ah, but what a fantasy we have! These questions of art and privilege are largely outshone by the film’s ambitious audacity, its sweeping camera movements and soaring emotions. La La Land is joyous, exhilarating and, despite its innumerable influences, unique. Linus Sandgren’s camera swoops and swerves through grand long shots (though, it’s true, the focus-pulling leaves a bit to be desired). Justin Hurwitz’s music is thrilling and melancholic in equal measure, without ever feeling like a page torn from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s playbook (thank God). The film is funny, heartfelt, romantic and sad.
All credit goes to the two lead actors, who’re asked to shoulder the diverse burdens of a sprawling screenplay: they need to dance, and sing, and evince joy and heartbreak and longing. Chazelle is one of the rare directors to leverage Gosling’s talent for the comedic and dramatic, but Stone is the real star here. She’s always been a talented actress, but here she restrains her tendency to overplay her emotions, with the boggle-eyed mania of Birdman giving way to something truer, something infinitely charming. Perhaps neither actor is on par with Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers (honestly, I wouldn’t know), but their talents ensure that the film’s flights of fantasy are grounded in real emotions.
And when it comes down to it, that’s why La La Land sings for me. I’ve seen the film twice now. The first time, I simply allowed it to carry me off with it. Upon rewatch, I hardened my heart, and set out to interrogate it critically, to poke holes and to dispel its glamour. But then Gosling and Stone floated up to the ceiling, and I couldn’t help but dance with the stars alongside them. My favourite film of the year.