Despite what you may have been led to believe, writer-director Damien (Whiplash) Chazelle’s La La Land is not some type of homage to the Hollywood musicals of old. It only starts out that way, with a pair of big, colorfully splashy numbers to make you think that’s what you’re in for. The first number is an epic song-and-dance spectacular about how great it is living in sunny Los Angeles…with a cast of hundreds dancing amid vehicles lined up in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. But tucked away in that mess are at least two people (likely more) with dreams.
First, there’s Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented jazz piano player whose only drawback is his commitment to classic jazz and resentment of having to play anything else, even if it makes him money. Then there’s Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress whose curse seems to be that she’s just as good as dozens of other redheads, who just happen to be “a little bit prettier,” according to her. Her auditions are a series of small humiliations that add up to one giant disappointing choice in career. Her real job is as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, which means she’s surrounded by the craft she’d love to be a small part of, and that only adds to her torture.
The two first lay eyes on each other in a restaurant where Sebastian is tinkling away playing Christmas carols as background music for patrons. But what draws her into the establishment is that brief moment when he goes off-book and plays a contemplative, self-written piece, a small act of rebellion that gets him fired by boss J.K. Simmons. Sebastian storms out of the restaurant and blows by Mia, who is attempting to tell him how beautiful his music sounded. The more traditional meet-cute happens later at a pool party where Sebastian is in an ’80s cover band, rocking a-ha and A Flock of Seagulls tunes. He walks her to her car, they share a few life goals, and by the end they’re dancing a simple two-step. And so the tentative romance begins.
While Chazelle could have simply made La La Land a purist romance exercise, he’s a bit more daring than that when he introduces something strange and almost unheard of to the formula—real life. With the help of original songs from Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Chazelle has composed a musical about compromise and patience in an artist’s life. These people have life goals, but at some point they realize if they are a little more patient than we usually see people in films about artists, that they eventually get where they think they want to land. But there are also sacrifices to be made in getting there, and that’s where pain enters the story.
La La Land also pays affectionate tribute to the inspiring impact that rejection can have in an artist’s life. Sebastian is driven to open his own club where only traditional jazz will be played, and the more his way of thinking is swatted aside by more modern music, the more driven he becomes. So much so that he takes a steady job in a pop-oriented jazz band led by old friend Keith (singer John Legend). The gig pays well, but keeps him away from Mia for weeks at a time. But more importantly, she’s surprised how easily he’s taken to the role of playing someone else’s modern music. He sees it as a long-term stepping stone and as a means of growing up somewhat. She sees it as selling out and wanting to be liked, which he finds an ironic criticism coming from an actress.
Roughly the first half of La La Land is the romance, with the back half bringing the hurt, with a chance for redemption by the end. Gosling and Stone are such game players and possess a winning chemistry (having worked together twice before in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) that it’s easy to forgive that they aren’t the best singers and dancers, although Stone delivers a show-stopping number during an audition near the end of the film that will empty your eyes of tears. Don’t get me wrong: they are quite strong performers in every respect, but this film isn’t about that. In a strange way, it’s almost better than Gosling sings in something of a whisper and that Stone’s dancing is less than flawless. The movie embraces and celebrates these imperfections with song and dance in the grand tradition of Jacques Demy (The Young Girls of Rochefort, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
There’s a musical number in La La Land set five years in the future from the rest of the film that takes the film from “great” to “into the stratosphere.” I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s the most old-school Hollywood musical moment of the entire film, taking on elements of fantasy and spectacle that isn’t in any other part of the film (okay, dancing in the air among the stars in a planetarium is close). And in those few closing moments, we learn more about dreams—real and unfulfilled—than I have from any film in quite some time. The sequence comments on the road not taken, and asks us to consider which path was the right one for these two. It’s exquisite, unforgettable, and utterly heartbreaking. But it also gives us hope for both of our heroes. This and all the rest make La La Land one of the finest films of the year.