La La Land is a bright, colourful almost to the point of corny, and honestly rather poignant homage to modern cinema. Directed by Damien Chazelle, who previously worked on the critically acclaimed Whiplash and the sci-fi 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s about two twenty-something lonely souls trying to make it big in Hollywood, a city well-known for dashing one’s dreams and breaking hearts. The movie itself is set in modern-day Los Angeles, but its sensibilities are refreshingly set in the florid trappings of a 70’s broadway musical.
Mia is an aspiring actress (Emma Stone apparently playing Emma Stone) who one night chances upon Sebastian, a jazz musician (Ryan ‘The Notebook’ Gosling), just as he is fired from his pianist job for playing a bit of jazz instead of sticking to the Christmas repertoire. She goes to compliment him but is rudely snubbed, and in the tradition of movie cliches, they start off on the wrong foot but somehow end up falling in love. In the process, the audience is treated to a set of whimsical song-and-dance numbers that take you out of the story itself, which is initially jarring but settles into its groove about a third of the way through the movie.
La La Land is a movie that is quite unlike the blockbuster, superhero, sci-fi crowd-pleasers of late. The colour-saturated set pieces are over-the-top, the musical numbers are unapologetically flashy, and the art direction is truly something out of a Looney tunes Technicolour wet dream. The music score is infectious, both uplifting and wistful in equal measure, sounding as though it was lifted directly out of a Disney movie set in Moulin Rouge.
While some in the audience may already be turned off by the excess of shmaltz in this movie, credit should be given to the choice of using the actors’ real, untrained voices to sing the musical numbers. Gosling’s thin, reedy tenor in particular stands out if only for its rough, unpolished rendition, but this creative choice helps ground the movie in some much-needed imperfection that comes across as charming rather than contrived.
Gosling also brings to the table his jerkish character from The Nice Guys, a buddy cop movie where his physical comedy was played off a very grumpy Russell Crowe. In La La Land, this works, for the most part, when paired with Stone’s jaded portrayal of a girl-next-door, who is cynical and idealistic in equal measure. Stone’s performance is the heart of the film, guiding the audience through her struggles and disappointments, ultimately leading to the film’s highest point, the casting call that finally makes her famous. This is where Stone metaphorically and figuratively shines, delivering a heartfelt monologue which is dedicated to the creative talent that goes unrecognised, the ones who spend years in the dark honing their craft, trying and failing, over again, until they get it right.
One would be forgiven in thinking that the movie is about how two people fall in love, fight, kiss and make up, and live happily ever after. Where this movie redeems itself is how it subverts that trope and explores, with great panache, what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the appeal of the spotlight. When success comes, it comes at a price, and like everything worthwhile in life, one has to make sacrifices. This juxtaposition is an age-old conflict and is the vehicle for what Damien Chazelle really wants to say, which is a love letter to the human condition of what it means to make a living out of your passion.
Should you watch this movie? It depends. The original target audience was meant to be Broadway buffs, middle-aged women and young couples. Since its release however, it has generated a ridiculous amount of hype, so for those who go to see it based on hype alone, you may find yourself let down. But if you have ever been in the position of deciding whether to be a filmmaker or a business executive, an entrepreneur or an accountant, this film will resonate with you.