“La La Land” is a musical that begins like any other musical does, but doesn’t end like many I’ve seen. It’s written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who made 2014’s “Whiplash” and co-wrote “10 Cloverfield Lane”. “La La Land” has moments of the delirium of a typical musical, mixed with some realism and cynicism that is usually saved for another genre. It is an interesting concept, and for the most part, it works quite well.
It begins with a musical number that you’d think would set the tone for a very upbeat, silly, and theatrical experience. We’re introduced to our two leads: Mia (Emma Stone), on her way to an audition; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who’s driving around learning music. Both are stuck in an endless traffic jam that sets off the song “Another Day of Sun”, boisterous and toe-tapping, but not necessarily memorable musically.
From there, we see that Mia works on the Warner Bros. lot as a barista, one of thousands of hopeful actresses who is always either on her way to work, a party, or an audition. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who is stuck playing simple Christmas tunes at a bar, working for tips and a little money. The two first meet inauspiciously on the highway, with Sebastian and Mia exchanging annoyed glances due to the traffic jam. When she finds herself in the bar that he’s playing, she witnesses him break from his script and start playing a jazz riff that winds up getting him fired. But she’s taken by the moment, even though it’s not shared by him. When they meet again, we’re treated to a much nicer song (“A Lovely Night”), after they run into each other at a party in which Sebastian is now with an 80’s cover pop band.
Of course, they fall in love, each encouraging each other to follow their dreams. Sebastian wants to open his own jazz bar, and Mia finds that she’s at her best if she creates her own role and is prompted by Sebastian to write a one woman show for herself. In Los Angeles, the city of angels, it’s also the city of dreams. While the pair try to make it through together, moving in with each other, some opportunities arise. Sebastian is offered by an old friend (John Legend) to play in his band. They’re more modern, and pop influenced, but still considered “jazz” enough for Sebastian to join. They also pay extremely well. The only other drawback, besides going against Sebastian’s purity roots, is that they’re always on tour or recording a record. For Mia, she stays at home and works on her play, setting up a premiere night that doesn’t go as well as she’d hoped. To make things worse, Sebastian misses it due to an engagement in photo shoots and a music video production.
The strain of the relationship, on top of the pressures of trying to “make it”, cause the two to drift. The third act of the film is predictable, with them going their own way–but the ending is a bit of a surprise, for a musical. This was what I liked most about it. Some of the structure reminded me of the 1981 film “Pennies from Heaven” with Steve Martin, especially how the film concludes.
While the film is a love story, it’s more about the pursuit of one’s goals rather than the pursuit of happiness with another person. After all, that’s Hollywood. Much of your life in tinseltown is spent sacrificing, compromising. Falling in love, but not staying in love. But can Mia and Sebastian break those chains, and make it together? It’s certainly something we want to see happen.
The film’s strength is in its little doses of humor and Gostling and Stone’s performances. The musical numbers are, for the most part, very average. There are a few exceptions–“City of Stars”, the film’s key song, and the catalyst to drawing me in completely; and, “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme”, which is sprinkled throughout the film. Some of the jazz numbers are very well done as well. It has a few stagnant sequences, and can be a bit laborious at a little over two hours of running time; but it’s most enjoyable watching these two actors enjoy their screen time together, singing and dancing (Stone better at the singing and Gosling better at the dancing).
In a time of over saturation with remakes, reboots, sequels, and countless adaptations, it’s also refreshing to see a wholly original work, even if it is sometimes a cliche’d musical. It’s a nice break from the grind of moviegoing these days, and there are definitely moments in the film where you’d like to stay there just a little longer. After all, it is la la land.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’,” says Terence Fletcher, a hard nosed, no nonsense but two-faced jazz teacher. Fletcher, played with vitality by J.K. Simmons (“Spider-man”, “Juno”), teaches at Shaffer Conservatory, and has the most talented musicians at his fingertips. He conducts the jazz ensemble like a drill sergeant, mocking his students when they mess up–even when they haven’t. He expects perfection, and is willing to squeeze every ounce of respectability out of himself to get it. He’ll swear, throw things, bark, threaten, whatever. But he demands the best, and it seems as though he gets the best, too.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young apprentice, an aspiring jazz drummer who has been playing since a young age, looking up to guys like Buddy Rich to inspire him. He plays with a certain drive and fervor that Fletcher likes, and invites him to be a backup drummer (basically turn the music sheets for the starter in the ensemble) to get a taste of being part of the prestigious Shaffer, boosting his ego enough to ask out the local theater girl (Melissa Benoist), and practice his skills. Fletcher seems impressed with his abilities, and he allows Neiman a shot at the drums after the lead drummer loses his music sheets (possibly a scheme hatched by Fletcher). He tells Neiman to “just have fun”–but Fletcher instantly turns on him when he doesn’t hear what he wants to hear.
Neiman is at first high on himself and egotistical for earning the first spot, and somewhat brags at the dinner table to his dad (Paul Reiser) and family members. He mocks a star football athlete at the table, since he’s only Division 3, and maintains that he will be one of the greats. He also breaks up with Nicole, the theatre girl, promising that as his drumming gets more serious, he will not have time for her.
Fletcher plays games with Neiman, allowing another alternate to take the first chair, and putting Neiman down in the process, knowing he’s hurting him. But Fletcher doesn’t care. Only in a very surreal moment when Fletcher stops practice to tearfully lament about a former student’s fatal car accident, do we ever possibly see a “softer” side of him.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle masterfully puts this story together, where it first seems like a standard “kid who really wants to make it and against all odds breaks through” story, it winds up going in a completely different direction. It’s refreshing to see a fresh spin on something seemingly predictable. While it still follows a formula and never strays from being a coherent narrative, there are surprises and climaxes that are exhilarating.
The last 10 minutes of the film had me holding my breath, clinging to my seat, as Andrew beats on drums so fast his hands bleed. He’s desperate…but he’s not desperate to impress anyone. This story is not about how a young kid became a great jazz drummer. It’s not even really a story about jazz. All of the jazz used (songs by Hank Levy and Juan Tizol) is aggressive, muscular…it’s not something to grab a cup of tea and relax to. There’s a fever pitch to the music, which burns inside Andrew and it burns inside Fletcher as well. The film is about obsession, mania, losing yourself to the work you are putting in. It’s not about practicing or rehearsals, or the big show, even though all of those elements are in the film. All Andrew wants to do is drum, and when he gets over his own ego, realizes that the whole world can disappear for all he cares as long as he’s finally “got it”. And Fletcher knows that.
There’s a story that’s passed along in the movie that is a bit made up but based on fact. It involves Charlie “Bird” Parker, where Fletcher relates the story as Parker was performing†badly and a cymbal was thrown at his head by Jo Jones, creating the nickname “Bird” because of his reflexes. After that night, Parker never made a mistake again and became legendary. In reality, a cymbal was not thrown at his head. But the point of the story is not even about making a mistake and being punished for it. It’s the obsessive nature of having to be perfect–and not to perform. But to be within perfection itself. It’s so that you have total control over your art, or whatever you do. The film’s standard protagonist is Neiman, and people would say Fletcher is the antagonist. In a way I think both of them are protagonists, and I think the antagonist is the obsession, with the object being jazz. Sure Fletcher is a brute, but what lengths he goes to in order to teach perfection is no less than the lengths Andrew goes to achieve it.†It’s compelling, but not preachy or moral.
And it’s certainly not easy listening.