“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.