In a generation that’s grown up with the likes of High School Musical, hit series like Glee and the restraint of musical acts in many Disney films, the idea of a purely romantic musical on the big screens sounds rather foreign. That’s doubly so for generations past, where musicals flourished and performers were singers and dancers first, actors second. In that respect La La Land is both an ode to the old and a step to the side for the millennial, which in no way compromises, holds back or diminishes its utter brilliance and thematic impact.
Instead it bolsters and energizes it, something which the film entrusts into its viewers from the moment the busy streets of modern day Los Angeles burst into song and dance without the faintest whisper of its main characters. Around the frenetic, cheerful act lies both Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Both have that starry eyed, borderline ignorant dream of making it big in the big La La Land, although they come from different artistic corners.
Mia is a struggling actor, working shifts at a Barista Bar in the centre of the Warner Bros.’ lot while rushing to auditions during breaks (and sometimes during work itself). Sebastian, or Seb as the film quickly abbreviates it to, has his love deeply rooted in Jazz, and sees himself as one of the only people striving to ensure its heyday hasn’t past. Seb mocks the idea of iconic jazz clubs being morphed into cheap dinner spots, while Mia in turn appreciates the ever-changing industry around her while longing to be a part of it.
In the bustling social scene that envelops this slice of the LA pie, it doesn’t take long for both Mia and Seb to rub shoulders. Or at least, it wouldn’t have been if La La Land was truly about fairy-tale introductions and unrealistic relationships. Instead the film toes the line at a few key points, presenting both Mia and Seb as struggling artists who find comfort in each other’s love for differing arts. Their relationship is the crux of most of the film, but manages to elevate itself above a simple romance in a bubble oblivious to the world around it.
Part of that rests on the strong performances from both Stone and Gosling, who chew through scenes together as if they’ve been doing it for a lifetime. Which isn’t too farfetched, given their work together on films like Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. Both feel so comfortable around each other that their romance never once feels forced. It’s passionate when it needs to be, while equally heart wrenching and devastating when the story takes those turns.
And while Mia and Seb are at the forefront, La La Land isn’t entirely about their love alone. Instead, the film uses their fiery ambitions to show a side of relationships that feels a lot more relevant for the time. A tugging of ambition and career from one end, while the other pulls to keep a relationship stable and happy. The films ebbs and flows effortlessly between both Seb and Mia in this regard, with Gosling in particular having the most work to do.
His inner struggle of coming to terms with compromise in the pursuit of his dreams is all too real, and Gosling effortlessly shows this whether he is bursting out of restaurants after failing to stay on course with Christmas Carol performances or being forced to dedicate his life to a style of music he doesn’t believe in. Mia, and Stone in turn, gets the opportunity to tackle this sort of problem in a different light too, while the narrative keeps pace with both to keep things stitched together at the same time.
In a way this could prove disappointing to some, especially since the film almost loses its musical tendencies for the last third of the film (aside from an spellbinding last act). Up until the complications, La La Land doesn’t have an air of worry to it. It’s filled with tight musical numbers that never failed to have me grinning from ear to ear, packed full of colour and gorgeously filmed sequences that director Damien Chazelle so meticulously put together. His previous work on Whiplash was ground-breaking, but it pales in comparison to the La La Land’s many iconic scenes that stick with you well after the credits roll.
The musical numbers themselves are great too, even as their scale slowly shrink when the film settles more on Mia and Seb alone. And even though Gosling and Stone are mainly known as seasoned actors, they do an admirable job of keeping up with the demanding vocal and dancing performances asked of them. They’re not perfect, but in a way it fits so well with who their characters are too. Emphatic highs such as Stone’s “Audition” near the end of the film only fall second to the charming tap number the pair share early in the film, while the repeated “City of Stars” is used so expertly to tie together the film’s themes across its four Tarantino styled seasonal acts.
And among all the alluring imagery, stunning set piece moments of disbelief and gorgeous backdrops, Chazelle manages to ground it all into a tale that is likely relatable to anyone watching. Clutching my girlfriend’s hand in the cinema as we watched, I couldn’t escape the film’s message about the twisted endeavour of balancing artistic, career driven endeavours and those we choose to pursue in relationships. It’s hard subject matter that Chazelle presents in its rawest form, never looking down on your with an underlying message or direction that would seem like an easy solution.
Instead, the film ends on a note that could easily be interpreted in two different ways, but ultimately depends on how you choose to look at what the events leading up to that point meant for Mia and Seb. It’s gut wrenching in its build up to this final act – not because of a clear problem that is left unresolved or an obvious mistake made by either of the leads. Instead, its because La La Land addresses the reality of these situations, in a setting that allows for exploration of fantastical themes, but still manages to relate itself to everyday relationships.