Wonderfully nostalgic and gloriously choreographed, La La Land presents itself as a love letter to a Hollywood golden age, a time past when musicals were written for the screen and production numbers were full of Tinseltown glamor. For a sense of reference, there is an interview that admits the movie’s appreciation of That Thing You Do, and we can even see some odes to that film sprinkled in along the way (watch for an appearance by an actor in that film, and similar blue backdrop).
I might think that anyone would be hard pressed to resist this film’s charm and toe-tapping energy (evening considering those I know who hate musicals with a passion), but the true wonder of the film actually lies in its ability to masquerade as a rather complex and affecting human drama, a drama that uses the music to enhance it rather than simply accentuating the musical itself.
It might be easy to miss the fact that La La Land is Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s third film together (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), but it would certainly be near impossible to deny their ever-growing chemistry. The young actors light up the screen with their unpolished voices and humble dispositions, managing to strike an imperfect balance between the charisma of song and dance and the ongoing development of their characters. The fact that they don’t have the perfect voices adds a sense of raw honesty to the picture that makes it all the more enjoyable and allows the magic of the set to feel all the more real.
La La Land is definitely not your average rom-com, and director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) uses a raw and uncalculated approach to colour the movie with an irresistible charm. For example, there is a rather large portion of the film (in the middle) that is absent of any music at all, and within the musical portions he uses the power of music to layer the unconventional love story with a rather bold mix of melancholy and romance that filters between realism and the fantastical. It allows the story to move fluidly between both realms and allows the musical numbers to provide the film with a sense of place and purpose (as opposed to just spontaneously breaking out into song).
The film opens with a busy (but memorable) musical number set on an L.A. freeway, and then abruptly slows down the pace as we narrow in on the intersecting stories of Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) from their unique perspectives as a part of the Hollywood culture. The film grounds itself in the L.A. landscape from the get-go, and becomes a rather endearing love letter to its storied past, something that also gives us context for the love story we find in the main characters.
As their stories merge, we find their relationship filled with interesting dynamics and twists and turn that really digs underneath what it means to give ourselves to these relationships whole-heartedly in a world that is also vying for out attention.
These two Hollywood hopefuls share a similar struggle, caught somewhere between their dream and their reality, and eventually find mutual admiration through giving time that exists in the space in between to understanding each others story (with the help of the dazzling romance of the L.A. lights that provides the backdrop). And as they each eventually aspire to turn their dream into reality, it quickly becomes clear that with this relationship also comes a new and unexpected reality, which is the fact that their burgeoning relationship is also beginning to re-orient their dreams towards the needs of each other. In the context of this unexpected love story, this requires them to consider (or reconsider) what it means to exist in this shared relationship.
At its heart the film is about the choices we make and how those choices carry consequence, positive and/or negative. Much the same as we find in the film Brooklyn, another memorable story about love from this year, the nature of “choice” is described in La La Land as a process in which we must always be brave enough to celebrate one path while grieving another. This is what it means to choose.
For example, in the case of Sebastian, he makes the choice to take a full time music gig, a choice that sacrifices both his passion for the music he actually wants to play and the relationship he desires to give himself whole-heartedly to (and that is also continuing to invest in him).
And while the film is about choice, it is also about the importance of passion. Sebastian’s neglect to fuel his passion for old-school jazz directly affects the passion he has for the relationship with Mia. In a wonderfully emotional scene, Mia encourages him not give up on his passion for jazz, which in a very real sense also becomes a plea not to neglect his passion for her as well. This is what happens in a shared relationship, is that our true passion becomes the other in our life, and we share in their passions as well. As as she so poignantly states, by learning to love him she has also learned to love jazz, but it is also by learning to appreciate his passion for jazz that she has been able to grow a passion for him as well.
What breathes a sense of irony into Sebastion’s story is that he remains so desperate to be seen as someone who is successful, so desperate that he is willing to lose a piece of who he is. But in the process, he ends up neglecting the one person who has accepted him for exactly who he is.
In this same sense, Mia makes the choice, under the encouragement of Gosling, to pursue her own dream of becoming an actor, but eventually comes up against her own struggle with self-depreciating thoughts. It is her inability to see see herself as worthwhile and confident enough to act according to her strengths that causes her to lose her sense of passion, and it is this absence of passion that ends up keeping her from being able to fight for the relationship that she values so deeply.
And here we arrive at the rather bittersweet nature of the narrative. Instead of finding their identity in one another, and instead of finding their purpose in encouraging each other towards becoming the best versions of themselves that they can be, they end up searching for their worth outside of themselves. The tragedy of the story is that this causes them to miss opportunities to truly see themselves through each other’s eyes as well (some foreshadowing we are given in the early going as Sebastian abruptly brushes past Mia instead of stopping to hear her words of encouragement). And so we gain a picture, a rather magical picture in-fact, of the characters slowly drifting apart as the story moves forward. So slowly in-fact that the surprising and unsettling finish, which we should see coming, ends up hard to predict. And yet, it is this slow process that is what allows the viewer to truly appreciate the conflicting emotions that the ending does create:
It is time which slows down when they are together. It is also the slowness of time which pushes them apart. It is a rather beautifully rendered final scene that reminds the two characters that life could have been different if they had made different choices. Life could have been different had they learned to share in their passions rather than isolate themselves at the each others expense. Life could have different if they had made use out of the slowness and learned to cherish the momentary magic of simply giving time to looking into each others eyes. But the painful truth of time is that they can’t go back and change the past, they can only choose to live differently moving forward. This is what it means for the characters, as they say, to grow up.
As both characters eventually reemerge from this slow-drifing, they find themselves right back where they started, only this time carrying the consequence of their choices and the baggage of this missed time. And this is ultimately where Mia and Sebastian can teach us something about moving forward together or apart. Relationships push and pull us between the competing forces of understanding who we are as an individual and understanding who we are becoming together. It is when we let go on one side or the other that we stand in danger of losing sight of what the relationship can be. In La La Land’s most melancholy moments we are reminded that we cannot live together in isolation. In it’s most romantic ideals, we are reminded that we need not feel isolated when we make the effort to learn how to live together.
“Look at the view, ” Mia says as they stand overlooking the lights of L.A..
“I’ve seen better,” Sebastian responds.
This small exchange manages to capture the heart of La La Lands mix of melancholy and romance better than any other scene in the film. The truth is relationships are messy. Life is messy. It very rarely looks the way we imagine it should when we are blinded by love. But it is when we embrace the messiness and acknowledge the struggle of the shared space these relationships create, that we also give ourselves the freedom to open our eyes and experience what lies beyond the romance of the lights as well. And there is great worth in opening our eyes to see and enter into the bigger picture of what a wholly formed love really is, and often the bigger picture ends up much more beautiful and worthwhile than we could have ever imagined from the momentary sidelines. Mia and Sebastian caught a glimpse of what this could have been for them, and it was enough to change their perspective on what was possible moving forward, offering a bit of joy amidst the grief, a bit of music in the mundane, a bit of hope in the broken, a bit of dancing in the rain.
And having just had the privilege of celebrating 12 years with the one who won me over all those years ago, La La Land was a good reminder to me that love is an investment that is worth more than anything this world has to offer.