Los Angeles has had its fair share of both cinematic love letters and deconstructions down the years. For every ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ extolling the virtues of Hollywood and pursuing ones dreams, there is a ‘Mulholland Drive’ that pulls back the bedsheets to expose the dark underbelly of corruption. It’s rare to find a film that manages to portray the magic and hypocrisy of Hollywood simultaneously. But Damien Chazelle’s La La Land takes a wide aim at the movie business while still managing to show why so many flock to Tinseltown to chase their dreams – even if most of them end up writing think pieces in between their shifts at Starbucks.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress looking for her big Hollywood break. Through a chance encounter on the highway she argues with Seb (Ryan Gosling) a jazz fanatic desperate to start his own club and reinvigorate the disappearing art he has devoted his life to. As they both struggle through tedious day jobs to pursue their dreams, a chance meeting at the bar Seb works at, and a later incident at a party convince the two that there are sparks between them. They begin dating, and their individual passions power their romance. But as each becomes more successful and closer to their dreams, the demands of success threaten to tear their relationship apart. Also there’s a lot of singing.
Movies about moviemaking are regular fixtures on the Oscar-hype train. Many cases are incidents of Hollywood giving itself a nice, self-indulgent slap on the back over how wonderful, mysterious or difficult their lives are. With La La Land however there are quite clear reasons why awards will be heading its way. The film is stunningly directed, with some wonderful and original ideas in its presentation. It can be difficult to offer any innovative scenes in a city like LA, which has been covered head-to-toe in cinema leaving practically all corners a cliché. But every scene in La La Land is drenched in classic Hollywood style and mixed in with modern Hollywood vanity. It’s like existing in a present with a filter of the past covering everything you see. Colour bursts from the screen presenting the world as a land of opportunity at all the right times – when our characters meet and fall in love. This is later drained and unsaturated as reality kicks in, and issues between the characters arise. More impressively, this never becomes a distraction to the story. The subtle differences are what stand out, in lighting, wardrobe and shooting, which work to amplify the story we see played out. The plot itself is not anything particularly special, but the ways the story is told elevate it to greatness.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both inspired choices for the leads. Stone’s Mia is a hopeful but frustrated dreamer. Her acting career is headed nowhere when we meet her, yet her creativity and spirit remains intact. As Seb enters her life things begin to look up, despite little progress being made. Stone then gets to bring out the characters true feelings of despair as her relationship begins to suffer, despite her creativity blossoming and eventually seeing some payoff. The role is filled with the typical boisterousness you would expect from Stone, and it’s easy to pull for her to achieve her dreams. Gosling’s Seb meanwhile is himself a dreamer, albeit a much more aloof one with a touch of arrogance. His passion for Jazz is the only driving force in his life, to the point where he is willing to join humiliating 80’s cover bands to fund it. Despite his reserved attitude, Gosling brings a warmth and maturity to the role that plays incredibly well off of Mia’s vulnerability. Despite being the standoffish type, it is Seb who is the one supporting the more outgoing Mia and pushing her to aim for the stars. She in turn opens his eyes to new opportunities and ways to make his love of Jazz more relatable to the people he is so desperate to attract. It’s very easy to root for the characters to be together because of these performances, whilst still seeing all the differences in them that make them strong individuals. It’s food for thought maybe that the next person you flip off on the motorway could be your soulmate, at the very least.
La La Land’s strongest point is the theme of the film and the battle it tells through the story between chasing your dreams and dealing with reality. The whimsical musical numbers are often interjected with humorous quips regarding the actuality of life outside of the movies. The growing apart of the characters is facilitated not by typical Hollywood misunderstandings or coincidences but by fundamental issues in their relationship relating to the characters careers. Seb’s life on the road as a keyboard player for example and the stress a long distance relationship puts on Mia. These matters are what facilitates the drama of the movie and raise the questions over what we need to compromise on when two sides of a relationship have different goals and dreams. It is clear as these characters become closer that each side requires sacrifice from the other to fulfil their goals. Seb’s goals involve being on the road to earn enough to start his club, leaving Mia alone. Mia’s require Seb to be more present in the relationship where she can stay in LA to secure acting roles. And while both are at a crucial point in their careers, their demands of each other threaten their dreams. In an old Hollywood movie, they would each know exactly what to say and do to solve their issues, and live happily ever after with all their dreams come true. But that isn’t the world in which La La Land exists. It’s a world where people make mistakes. It’s a world where people don’t always know the perfect thing to say. And it’s where people have to give up some of the things that mean the most to them to find what they need to be happy. It’s hard to imagine that a film about an aspiring Hollywood actress and a Jazz sensation falling in love in the Hollywood hills can be applicable to most people on the planet – especially in today’s culture of anti-elitism and disdain for all things metropolitan. But despite all its whimsy, La La Land is one of the most realistic films of the year.
La La Land is no average LA love story. Much like Damien Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash, central to the film is the price that must be paid for success. It’s the story of two creative individuals with hopes and dreams and what they have to sacrifice in order to attain them. Whilst far more optimistic in its outlook than Whiplash was about doing what it takes to achieve greatness, La La Land isn’t afraid to ask questions about whether the pursuit of dreams will truly lead to happiness, and whether relationships can survive against the demands of a passion. Looking past the toe-tapping songs and excellent performances, and the richness of this modern day classic is on full display. If it sweeps the Oscar’s, it won’t be because of Hollywood’s need for self-indulgence (alright, not JUST because of that). It will be because no other film takes the same risks in telling an original story about love, commitment and creativity as La La Land has done. Now, if only J.K Simmons’ cameo appearance could have been changed to feature him screaming ‘NOT MY TEMPO!!!’ at Ryan Gosling, it would have Whiplash beat in every way.