In the opening scene of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a random woman breaks out into song. A group of people soon join her voice they begin dancing. After a few minutes, the song ends and the story moves on.
Sound like a run-of-the-mill musical? Think again. Abandon the image of a Broadway stage and picture this same scene unfolding on a freeway overpass in broad daylight. The backdrop? Los Angeles, expansive in both size and possibility. This transformation of reality into spectacle is central to the film, a modern-day revival of the musical genre popularized by the likes of “Singing in the Rain” and “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
La La Land follows the lives of Mia Dolan and Sebastian Wilder, played respectively by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, two individuals smitten by Los Angeles, the city of stars. Mia, an aspiring actress, makes lattés on the Warner Brothers lot in between auditions. Sebastian, a musician committed to reviving jazz in the modern day, plays Christmas tunes in a restaurant to make ends meet.
The magic of this film lies in the moments in which their paths, meandering and seemingly astray, meet. Their first encounter takes place during the opening scene’s final moments: Sebastian, frustrated with Mia for holding up the line of cars behind her, passes her Prius. In the split second when their cars line up and their eyes meet, mutual annoyance is conveyed and a middle finger is raised. The moment fades into another as both continue on their separate ways.
Placed within the context of everyday life, this scene is unremarkable. However, in the world of La La Land, it begins a narrative trajectory familiar to many of us today: paths aligning and parting, two ends between which the pendulum of time swings.
More songs are sung and streets danced upon. Yet, the only thing occupying my mind during these moments was anticipation, which escalated with every word sang and every sequence danced. When would they meet again? How will they fall in love? Will it last?
When their paths finally cross once more, the situation delves into yet another clichéd situation; Mia is lost and finds herself attracted to something beautiful — in this case, a lovely melody — coming from a random place. She enters, and who else is responsible for this but Sebastian, playing as if his life depended on each note. The look in her eyes is one of love at first sight but, alas, the feeling is not reciprocated; he leaves her feeling ignored and rebuffed in his wake. Their paths cross for the third time at a pool party, where she is an attendee and he a pianist for a cover band. She makes one ironic song request: A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran,” much to his chagrin. They mingle after the set finishes until the party ends, and this time, the chemistry between them is almost palpable. Sebastian walks Mia to her car, and along the way, the two break out into song and dance (tap dancing shoes included) against a vividly hued sunset.
From this moment forward, the clichés only grow in number as a relationship develops, passions are pursued and love is strengthened and tested. The back-and-forth game viewers see throughout the film is illuminated with cliché serving as the backbone of its success. A device typically scorned and avoided, it is fully embraced by Chazelle, who uses it to create and enhance the dream-like quality that permeates his story. La La Land captures moviegoers in a figurative purgatory between two worlds, one rooted in illusory landscape and the other in unforgiving reality. This coexistence creates a viewing experience that is highly entertaining but simultaneously increasingly uneasy.
Chazelle’s Los Angeles feels unreal at times, seeming more a product of artifice rather than a world ruled by reality; the colors of the sky are oversaturated and the colors of Mia’s dresses are always a bit too vivid. Just when viewers become situated within this world of songs and dreams, reality comes in to spell out countless challenges for Mia and Sebastian, both of whom are intent on having it all. In pursuing this goal, both individuals come to realize a clichéd but devastating fact: the attainment of the ideal is not possible, even in a place more fictive than real. When Chazelle plants the city of stars in this illusory space, the only fruit it can bear is that of disillusionment, the effects of which speak to his masterful storytelling and direction.
Not to be outdone, Stone carries her role gracefully and effortlessly, much like a modern-day Ginger Rogers. Gosling, on the other hand, seems more a decorative element than a living Fred Astaire; in spite of his dreamy looks, Gosling’s acting and singing are, quite frankly, the biggest source of disillusionment in this film.
Despite his shortcomings, the chemistry between them is electric, reminding viewers that La La Land is at heart a story of love, not simply between two lovers but between human and city, and most importantly, between artist and passion. Chazelle presents us with a bittersweet love letter to the city of stars and what it represents, one built on fiery passion and Faustian bargains, commercial success and failure, personal gain and loss. By its end, La La Land leaves us feeling charmed and deeply moved by its contents.
Lead actors Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling fall in love during their dazzling ‘A Lovely Night’ tap number in La La Land. Photo courtesy of INDIEWIRE.COM