La La Land (2016)
Universally acclaimed, “La La Land” is the kind of a film which could melt the most cynical and toughest of critics. As romantic as it is visually stunning, the main charm of the film lies in its simplicity: a guy, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and a girl, Mia (Emma Stone) both dream of professional success in Hollywood, and first find true happiness in each others’ arms before the practical realities of their chosen star professions separate them. With an uncomplicated plot and an absolutely stunning soundtrack, “La La Land” has all the appeal of an old musical, while keeping things interesting and original with notes of modern music, the showcasing of modern technologies and with the demonstrations of a competitive side of today’s Hollywood business. In “La La Land”, Damien Chazelle (director) shows that, in the 21st century, it is still possible not only to make a financially successful old-school musical-comedy, but also to produce a real gem of a movie capable of leaving the audience breathless with its heart strings’ pulling and sheer inventiveness.
The opening sequence of the movie is strong: a delightful, well-danced action on the top of cars stuck in traffic. This sequence captures the very essence of the film, although nothing so far hints at the melancholic, poetic finale. Here, in the traffic jam we also find our main characters: career-driven, slightly introverted Mia, and jazz-obsessed bachelor Sebastian. This musical sequence is then followed by others with large narrative intervals. The dancing/singing is done well in the movie, though often short-lived. Damien Chazelle drew his creative inspiration from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), and, indeed, there are a lot of colour, composition and dancing similarities. The hope was that after such “singing” films as “Once” (2007) and “Les Miserables” (2012), there would be even greater demand for the kind of films that incorporate musical performances. However, it is a mistake to view “La La Land” as simply a tribute to films-musicals. There is a lot of admiration in the film for the Jazz Age and for older Hollywood classics in general. For example, Sebastian is the one who introduces Mia to “pure” jazz and shows her how to enjoy it. Given this, it is a pity that with Sebastian’s love for the genre, the audience hears so little jazz in the movie.
For the most part, “La La Land” is your ordinary romance/comedy/drama, which shows the troubles of aspiring artists to land “serious” jobs and become famous, see Minnelli’s “An American in Paris” (1951) and Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001) for similar themes. In “La La Land”, Mia works in a café but has dreams of becoming a glamorous, well-known actress. Sebastian is a pianist, but with a passion for jazz music and, thus, dreams of opening up his own jazz club one day. Both Mia and Sebastian suffer serious set-backs in their professional paths with Mia failing auditions and Sebastian being forced to perform pop songs in restaurants and at private parties. Their slightly different professional aspirations mean that the loved-up couple struggle to maintain proximity: Sebastian’s career choice means constant out-of-town tours to promote himself – the purpose is to get a “following”, and Mia’s career break sees her flying to Paris – the purpose: to get noticed. Their different purposes presuppose different lifestyles, and despite their similarities and the common Hollywood dream, they see their paths diverging. The result of all this is a poetic, beautifully-drawn life-lesson.
The acting in the movie is good. Emma Stone (“The Help” (2011), “Birdman” (2014)) as Mia is again the one who fights for what she believes her destiny to do. Perfectly cast, she appears fun and loving; initially a girl-next-door, but with the potential and ambition to be something much more. At one point she fights for Sebastian’s dream and accuses him to be disloyal to it, but in another instance she gives up on her own dream and moves out of LA. Stone is able to portray the passion of her character, but also the contradictory nature of her character’s thoughts and actions. She convinces us that we are not here to judge Mia as she is simply someone following her dream, and she has the right to make mistakes and show insecurities along the way. Ryan Gosling (“Half Nelson” (2006), “Drive” (2011)) is also in his element; appearing charming in his own mysterious fashion, he manages to convey his character’s devotion for jazz and for Mia, and always appears down-to-earth and likeable, even when a thousand fans are screaming and ready to throw themselves at him.
On 24 January 2017, the Academy Awards nominations will be announced, and few doubt “La La Land”’s chances. In fact, if anything, “La La Land” is a perfect Academy Awards material, and it may be that the Academy just cannot wait to put on the movie as many of its stamps of approval as possible. And, why shouldn’t it? Like Fellini’s “8½” (1963), “La La Land”’s subject is painfully familiar to the Academy, and the LA dream strikes too many chords closer to home. Few doubt its win in the songs/music department (a great job from Justin Hurwitz!), but it could still be upset by Jenkins’s “Moonlight” or Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” in the Best Picture category. In 2012, “The Artist” (2011), a tribute to the silent film era, won an Academy Award in the category of Best Picture, and in the same way, “La La Land” may be said to be the film which reintroduced some of the essential elements of the time of great musicals, boosting its chances for an Oscar glory simply on that basis alone.
As for criticism, fans of a good musical may point out that there is not enough dancing/singing in “La La Land”, be it in the length of the pieces or their quantity. Besides, on the second glance, the chemistry between Mia and Sebastian (Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling respectively) is unclear, because Mia and Sebastian’s relationship share a lot of similarities of some brother and sister relationship with the usual siblings’ professional rivalry, respect and good-humoured friendship. In a way, Mia and Sebastian may appear too similar individuals (personalities) to be viewed as some cross-starred lovers who are challenging and interesting to one another. But that’s just one impression. Despite these criticisms, any film should also be judged on its overall originality, purpose and impact. In that vein, although some criticisms of “La La Land” are fair, for example, the movie’s disproportionate length, over-sentimentality in some scenes and the tedious progression of the plot in the middle, “La La Land” still stands above your average 10/10 movie, largely because of the nobility of its purpose, its niche genre, emotionally-charged ending, good acting, clever composition and great music numbers.
“La La Land” maybe be viewed as too simple, long and over-sentimental, but without this kind of “simplicity”, and authentic sentimentality and length, you cannot truly pay a great tribute to old-school musicals of a previous era, and that is exactly what this movie successfully accomplishes. Bravely reviving the success of a lost genre, “La La Land” charms its way to the hearts of its audience by having memorable scores, dazzling visuals, inventive fantastical compositions and great acting. Once the charm is securely lodged in the audience’s hearts, “La La Land” then breaks those very hearts, but does so with that bitter-sweet flair reminiscent of all great old movies. 10/10