La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s ode to the dreamers.

About halfway in, La La Land poses a challenge. It comes in the form of a line spoken by musician Keith (played by John Legend): “How can you be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”

It’s directed at one of the lead characters, but it also plays like a subtle dig at the blockbuster reboots and cardboard sequels that vie for the box office these days. In light of La La Land’s record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, it seems the film’s been vindicated. (You can almost hear Michael Bay grinding his teeth in frustration.)

So its a little strange that, at least at first glance, La La Land looks like quite a traditional narrative. Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) meets musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Their romance charts an unsteady course as they try to make it in Los Angeles.

It’s a maximalist take on the ideas from director Damien Chazelle’s last feature, Whiplash: the fragility of dreams and the toll they take on relationships. But where Whiplash was modern and realistic, La La Land instead harks back to the over-the-top style of Golden Age Hollywood musicals.

Its a style that Stone and Gosling are very good at — but they don’t stretch. They seem to play themselves, or at least versions of themselves we’ve seen on screen before: Gosling as the idealistic leading man, Emma Stone as the quirky dreamer. Maybe that’s the point — they’re meant to evoke the quintessential Hollywood types that the actors themselves are associated with.

The cinematography is partially responsible for that old-Hollywood feel. Chazelle treats Los Angeles the way Woody Allen treats New York and Fellini treats Rome — emphasizing what makes the city iconic and pointing out things you’d never noticed before. The result is a kind of neon painting, a Fred Astaire flick in technicolor. It’s here that the movie proves itself as revolutionary. It reinvents a genre long deemed dead.

It doesn’t hurt that the music is great, too (which, considering the film got nominated twice for the Best Original Song Oscar, is unsurprising). The opening song — the opening scene, period — is one of the film’s best. Chazelle has said that it was made so that certain people would walk out of the cinema, leaving behind only the purists who could get on board with what the film was about. An odd but inspired directorial choice.

‘Odd and inspired’ could also be applied to the songwriting choices by lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They described their approach to songwriting in an interview with Hrishikesh Hirway of Song Exploder. They said that whereas pop music is an adjective — usually describing a feeling — music in musicals is a verb. If this is the case, the verb in La La Land is ‘dream’. Mia dreams of being an actress, Sebastian dreams of opening a jazz club. But La La Land points out that dreams are incredibly fragile. For every famous actress and musician in the city of stars there are necessarily thousands of people whose dreams didn’t come true.

When Emma Stone sings “Here’s to the fools who dream”, its these people that she’s really talking to, each one of us (because who isn’t a dreamer from time to time?) Maybe what the movie’s really trying get at is the importance of what we do when the world forces us to wake up.

With all this focus on dreams, its hard to to ignore the fact that La La Land stubbornly avoids the present. Maybe the critics are right and it is just escapism. But when the first notes of ‘City of Stars’ hit, that doesn’t matter. The spell’s cast, and you’re in Chazelle’s world.

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