La La Land is a charming and exemplary film that reminds the viewer of the romanticism of Hollywood’s better days as well as the virtues of the cinematic experience. The former is illustrated in a quiet moment when aspiring actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is walking down a street. As she is making her way down a darkened avenue, an elegantly constructed tracking shot reveals an elaborate painting of many actors from the movies’ great past. The latter is encapsulated in a wonderful sequence in which Mia and Sebastian’s (Ryan Gosling) romance blossoms during a revival screening of Rebel Without a Cause.
These series of scenes are wonderfully directed by Damon Chazelle who juxtaposes the magic of the big screen experience with the transformative moments it can establish. He conveys this by showing the flickering light of the projector shine on the characters’ faces and having their hands meet, which culminates in a newfound intimacy.
The picture was shot in CinemaScope- resulting in an exuberant portrait of Los Angeles. The sequence that strengthens this depiction is the opening musical number called “Another Day of Sun.” It showcases an ambitious dance scene in the midst of a frustrating morning traffic jam.
However, the most astounding aspect of La La Land is in its excellent representation of Jazz. If Chazelle’s last film- Whiplash showed the blood, sweat and physical anguish in the pursuit being a Jazz drummer then La La Land is a genial advocation for the virtues of the musical genre. At the same time, the picture also typifies the inherent conflict in the improvisational staple of the iconic style.
The fundamental problem with the film comes from the imbalance of interest in the central characters’ dreams. While Chazelle provides many reasons for Mia wanting to become an actress, I never felt that they were compelling or stirring. The problem is compounded by the elusive nature of Mia’s one-woman play. The audience never gets a sense of its story, purpose or Mia’s reasoning for deciding to do it in the first place.
On the other hand, Sebastian’s dream of opening a Jazz club resonated because it comes from a deep-seated desire of artistic expression. In some early scenes, Sebastian plays a Jazz piece on the piano much to the chagrin of his boss who wants the young musician to play Christmas music. The small section of music that the character plays feels like the last dying breaths of the musical genre as it struggles to find relevance and resonance in modern times.
Interestingly, this thread is explored as Sebastian becomes a keyboardist for a Jazz band called The Messengers who are fronted by his former high school friend Keith (John Legend). Legend’s character represents the contemporary sceptic of Jazz who believes it must change to survive, as opposed to being a pristinely preserved antique attraction. Sebastian’s time in the band also introduces the question of how the practical concerns of life can be at odds with achieving one’s inmost desires.
Finally, Ryan Gosling’s performance as the pianist and Jazz aficionado is remarkable and represents his best one to date. Gosling combines his compelling silent work- exemplified in movies such as Drive and Only God Forgives along with his penchant for physical comedy- combined with an endearing, passionate and driven nature that provides Sebastian with remarkable depth. Moreover, his performance during the solo piano sections (Incidentally, Gosling plays all the piano pieces himself) called to mind the great soul bearing efforts of Ethan Hawke and Oscar Issac in Born to Be Blue and Inside Llewyn Davis respectively.
The final moments of the picture when Mia and Sebastian lock eyes across a crowded room represent the actor’s singularly striking moment in the film. He gives Mia a faint smile before sitting down and playing another song. The expression carries a touching universality because it conveys a tough exterior attempting to bury feelings of regret and sadness even in the face of achieving success. With this in mind, the film’s title and iconic idiom become a bittersweet irony- reinforcing the necessities of life taking precedence over the romanticism of dreaming.