by Philip Price
What is worth more? Where does ambition measure when compared to reflection? Or...how does one know when to quit? When that ambition outweighs or cannot be met by the pure skill or natural talent possessed? “La La Land” is a movie about Hollywood and the Hollywood system and how it all flows in and out of making and breaking stars, but “La La Land” is also a movie about dreams and the ugly side of those dreams no one likes to talk about when they tell you to chase them-compromise. Compromise is what must be obtained if one is hoping to have their cake and eat it too. There is compromise in life no matter what professional or personal route one may choose to take, but when dreams are big enough to take you around the world and on extended stays in places away from home that require long or odd hours such as, say, when someone is a musician or film actor-compromises are unavoidable and typically made by the half of the relationship not actively participating in such a career. With “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle follows up his Academy Award-nominated feature debut “Whiplash” with an out and out musical in the vein of those golden age Hollywood musicals from the ‘40s and early ‘50s that personified stardom, celebrity and a certain type of lifestyle most could only hope to obtain. This goes well with the plight of the story as we follow two young aspiring artists - the girl an actress and the guy a jazz pianist-as they navigate modern Los Angeles in hopes of achieving their dreams even if the odds seem stacked against them and despite their closest friends and family not exactly holding out hope for success to find them. The standard structure of boy meets girl combined with that of a few song and dance numbers that pay homage to those golden days of Hollywood aren't enough for Chazelle though. The writer/director isn't simply looking to recreate images and feelings afforded him during his youth as he watched Gene Kelly dance across the screen, but more he is interested in exploring the consequences of having such aspirations; the dark side of fame that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with addiction or other harmful habit forming activities, but more with the decisions such individuals have to make without knowing the answer as to what they'll regret more 20 years down the road. Can I be the person I want with the person I want? Is it worth more to make a life as I so desire or with the one I desire? “La La Land” doesn't prescribe to know the answers to these heavy questions, but its musings on the subject are infectious and reaffirming in that they capture the struggle one in a handful experiencing the film will have come face to face with at some point in their past.
From the opening shot of “La La Land” it is clear this is a movie like nothing else you will experience in the theater this year. On a packed freeway in Los Angeles in the sunny season of winter, cars sit bumper to bumper each pumping different genres of music from their speakers. It is a simple yet magical device that immediately immerses the audience in a beat. It is strangely impossible to not begin tapping your foot, appreciating the different styles as the camera whizzes through the stalled vehicles before landing on a young woman in a bright yellow dress who begins singing as if nothing strange is happening. She opens her car door, others around her not questioning such an action on an interstate bridge, but rather following suit and joining in on a choreographed number as the girl in the yellow dress leads a charge in song and dance. The girl in yellow is ultimately unable to keep up with Chazelle's camera as, in a single take, we are guided through a barrage of different dancers and singers each giving us anecdotes concerning their daily struggles living in LA and the hopes of finding that audition or individual who might allow them their big break. It is enough to make a viewer want to stand up and cheer and just as quickly fall in love with everything Chazelle accomplishes in the first three minutes while understanding exactly what he is going for with the project as a whole. As soon as this initial, full cast production hits its final note and the title card appears across the screen it seems improbable that every viewer isn't at full attention and on the edge of their seat waiting for what is to come next. And so, what does come next? We are first introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), the aspiring actress who serves lattes to movie stars on the Warner Bros. lot in between auditions. She is a native Nevada girl whose aunt was an actress and who was responsible for giving Mia the acting bug. Mia was one of those girls who was seemingly always involved in high school theatre and unwilling to be patient with college, leaving for LA after her second year at school. When we come to meet Mia she is several years into her stint in LA and rooming with three other girls who share the same dream as she. Then there is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the jazz musician, who scrapes by playing cocktail parties and bars, but who dreams of owning his own club where he can determine his own set list and create his own atmosphere. It is the chronicling of these two souls coming together, falling in love, and having to decide whether their ambitions can co-exist with their love for one another that “La La Land” finds its home.
So, obviously the big draw of “La La Land” is that it is this throwback to the musicals of yesteryear, but this may prove to be the most disappointing factor of the film for those going in expecting something in line with the works of that aforementioned song and dance man in Kelly. “Singin' in the Rain” and/or “An American in Paris” this is not, but this is part of the point of the film as it looks to, as John Legend's character phrases it, "revolutionize while being a traditionalist." Sure, “La La Land” draws its inspirations and many of its choices from those movie musicals of the past, but this is a film very much steeped in a modern environment with modern characters that are dealing in the same struggles of nostalgia as the rest of our culture right now. The question of how do we have anything new or innovative that our children might one day feel nostalgic about if all we do now is recycle what we're nostalgic for is of key importance in the moving forward of our protagonists. Sebastian is a man so in love with jazz and the rich history of the music that he can't help but to steep himself in the practices and techniques of those that came before him even going so far as to not being willing to open his club in a location besides the one where one of LA's most popular jazz clubs once resided. On the other hand, there is Mia who naturally wants to realize her dreams of big or small screen stardom, but without knowing the right people can't seem to catch a break. She is in a thankless relationship with someone she seems required to be with (Finn Wittrock) and in meeting Sebastian finds a fellow artist who she could see herself striving with forever. As these things go, these dreamers reach points where reality comes crashing down and it can't help but feel as if life is telling them to show up or grow up. The two come at this from different directions, Sebastian joins old friend Keith (Legend) in his band The Messengers as they need someone on the keys and offer solid pay. Mia begins writing her own, one-woman show in which she plans to self-produce. The means don't yet justify the ends they want, but they'll get there eventually - they have to believe they will. And it is from here, after the films wildly pleasant and enjoyable first hour that it begins to beg questions concerning artistic ambition and not just when do we reach a breaking point, but is there a value in the art these characters are so hell-bent on creating? Chazelle seems to want to argue that dreamers are necessary to our fabric as a human race and that if it weren't for such fools we'd never know just how far we could push ourselves or just how much we are capable of creating.
It's ambitious of Chazelle to want to make a musical in the first place much less make it about something as potentially disheartening as reality cancelling out hopes and dreams and how one depends on what outcome another decides to doll out. Many will question why there can't come to be a mutual respect or attempt in such situations-that if two characters were to love one another enough that they could make anything work, but it is in the final moments of “La La Land” that Chazelle, his writing, and his editors make it clear as to why folks very rarely balance their own dreams with the dreams of others. Not dreams that tend to be as big as Sebastian and Mia's anyway. It is in this delicate space of the current reality that “La La Land” is steeped in and the kind of otherworldly romance that it flirts with when breaking into song that allows for the final sequences of the film to really bring the viewer down to a level playing field. Never has there been a film that simultaneously feels just as honest as it does manufactured. Manufactured by virtue of the fact characters break into song and dance at certain moments throughout the film, but honest in its approach to many of the same themes and ideas that were present in “Whiplash.” Beyond what the film has on its mind though, but be warned it is nothing to scoff at and can't simply be glossed over in favor of the songs or the attractiveness of the cast, but beyond the questions and contemplations the film has on its mind it effortlessly glides through so many other facets that the shortcomings feel too sparse and too minimal in comparison to all its gets right to complain at all. The biggest detractors are the fact there isn't more original music throughout the film despite the fact what we do receive is bound to end up resonating and becoming even more rousing on second and third viewings. It is also easy to say that while Gosling and Stone certainly don't possess the chops or rhythm to necessarily keep up with those who made careers out of starring in such pictures-they are fine enough. The songs are catchy without being too challenging, the dancing is adequate, and the chemistry is of course palpable as this marks the third time these co-stars have shared the screen together, but what easily makes “La La Land” one of the best and most appealing films of the year is that it exudes a joy in its creation, an affection for all that have come before, and a genuine feeling of empathy for its subjects that extends past the genre classification and into the realm of understanding dreams and reality don't often go hand in hand, but that when they do they still might not be all they were imagined to be.