“Maybe I’m not good enough.” It’s this constantly underlying anxiety that gnaws at Mia and Sebastian (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) as they chase their respective aspirations in acting and jazz music, compelled by the allure of Hollywood’s star-spangled promises of success and validation. It is not, however, a fear that director Damien Chazelle need pay any attention to, considering La La Land’s dazzlingly impressive, record-tying achievement of 14 Oscar nominations including Best Director – making him, at only 32 years-old, the youngest nominee to date. This kind of recognition (totally deserved, I might add) is something our protagonists may only dream of, and dream they most certainly do.
Working in a Hollywood movie studio’s coffee shop, serving glamourous ‘somebodies’ that demand refunds when their pastry is (“ugh”) not gluten-free, Mia is a part-time waitress and (by Hollywood’s standards) a full-time ‘nobody’. She is tantalisingly close to the dreamy world of movies and fame, but is caught up in the chase: forced to endure tedious chats with other ambitious and desperate wannabies at LA pool parties and a humiliating (also hilarious) series of auditions if she is to take off her apron and become an actress.
Meanwhile, Seb is a somewhat reclusive pianist who yearns to run a club where jazz music is appreciated in its most authentic, original form; untainted by the superficiality and immediacy of modern life. However, like Mia, he is contending with Hollywood: a place that to his dismay, turns reputable jazz institutions into ‘samba-tapas’ joints (“samba….tapas? pick ONE you know!?”) and demands he confine the extent of his artistic creativity to playing restaurant background-mush and sticking to the setlist – an instruction that Seb’s reverence of true jazz makes very hard to swallow.
The film follows these two as their lives entangle and they attempt to make their dreams a reality in a conflict against compromise. A love story where the third-wheel is their ambition, La La Land gives the classic musical romance plot a modern spin that keeps you guessing. Think the love child of Singin’ In The Rain and (500) Days of Summer: it uses the backdrop of a timeless classic to present a witty, tongue-in-cheek, quirky new take on the genre. Gosling and Stone convey with deeply empathetic self-deprecation and dry wit the anxieties involved in the attempt to convince others (and yourself) that you have what it takes. Alongside this internal battle, they act out the age-old dilemma of love versus success; the struggle of allowing your life to become entwined with another’s, at the risk of your own success becoming swallowed and subsumed by theirs. It’s this difficult conundrum that the film revolves around and will have you puzzling over with mildly bored friends for days after.
The music mainly seeps in seamlessly and sumptuously with a beautiful piano motif that saturates into every crevice of the film. The catchiness is in its modest simplicity, however, which becomes one of the weaknesses of the film. It lacks the showstopper musical anthems of the likes of Grease, West Side Story or Mamma Mia. La La Land’s songs are mainly understated, and the exceptions to this – the first number, ‘Another Day of Sun’ – feel slightly cynical in their almost overwhelmingly exaggerated hyperbolic tone.
However this is most likely an intentional manoeuvre. This very self-aware film steers clear of the typical cheesy musical clichés with the charm of Stone and Gosling’s slightly clumsy dancing as well as their natural voices providing an unpolished and endearing vulnerability to the atmosphere. This reflects the terrifying exposure and risk of humiliation crawling under the shiny surface of a career in Hollywood.
You get the sense that director Chazelle understands both characters and the complexities of their aspirations. A jazz drummer in his youth, music became, as he explained in an AV club interview, “absolutely my life and an obsession” until he reached a “fork-in-the-road” and chose the direction of movies. This conflict of passions is visible in Mia and Seb’s differing ambitions, and the film tests their compatibility – perhaps a reflection of the torment Chazelle experienced in picking his path. The theme of unrelenting ambition and life-consuming commitment is present in Chazelle’s other films, with 2014’s Whiplash offering a more volatile and extreme pursuit of greatness: drummer (played by Miles Teller) is subject to the tyrannical training of his music teacher. Though a far more velvety and widely accessible film, La La Land retains elements of this fierce discipline. Chazelle reportedly put Gosling through 2 hours of piano lessons for 6 days a week over the course of 3 months to avoid the – often painfully conspicuous – act of faking it on film.
Chazelle’s commitment to authenticity and admiration of the movie classics also shines through in a fabulous sequence towards the end that pastiches all the old favourites in a way that manages to make a slight, sentimental mockery of the genre and its benchmark clichés. The entire cast would be invited to daily screenings of Hollywood’s quintessential numbers to get to know the ins and outs of what makes a timeless classic – something which La La Land, with its 7 Golden Globe awards and multiple Oscar nominations, looks on track to becoming. “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” is something Keith (John Legend) asks of Seb and something that could also be applied to the musical genre. However, add in the trendy stylised filming (think short, snappy shots of a coffee being prepared), contemporary culture references (Mia drives a Toyota Prius like everyone else in Hollywood) and the involvement of RnB writer, singer and producer John Legend, La La Land feels excitingly current and fresh.
Die-hard musical fans will appreciate this intelligent and exquisite new addition to the ranks, whilst musical-sceptics will surely be won over by the charm and humility of La La Land’s execution. The entire movie drips with romance, nostalgia, dreamy surrealism and a lust for life that will leave you spellbound. And after the year’s political events, it’s pretty nice to see an ‘anything could happen’ story in which the outcome is centred around love and hope.
Article by Ben Boswell Jones