One of the most beautiful things about film as an art form to me is that it looks like real life, but it doesn’t play by the same rules. And this applies universally. Every film has its own rules and teaches you what they are. In real life, a building falling on you would be quite fatal. In a “Fast and Furious” movie, all it takes is some yelling and chest-punching, and Vin Diesel is back on his feet. In real life, you take all your sadness and hide it deep inside until it turns into mental illness (at least I think that’s how it works), in “Les Miserables” you belt it out in song form and win an Academy Award for it. “La La Land” also plays by musical rules and also seems poised to take home a few Academy Awards, what with its 14 nominations.
“La La Land” is a movie about dreams. It follows Ryan Gosling’s aspiring Jazz-Pianist Sebastian, who wants to build his own club, and Emma Stone’s aspiring actress Mia, who wants to become a movie star. Along the way, they meet and fall in love. On the surface, it’s not a very complicated story. It’s directed brilliantly by Damien Chazelle, who you might know from his last film, “Whiplash”, which also heavily featured Jazz and a musician who dreamed of greatness. The two films could however not feel more different if one of them was about banana-farming.
The care with which “La La Land” treats its central theme is amazing. We live in a post-modern world, in which being sincere about your dreams is frowned upon, because let’s be honest, you’re not the only person with that dream, it’s almost certainly impossible to achieve and you’re probably an idiot for following it in the first place. Chazelle confidently takes this problem head-on and starts the film with a grand opening number about a young musician and a young actress following their dreams in Los Angeles. The twist is that those two are not our leads. They are completely unrelated to the story, yet they follow the same dreams. The film is full of these moments, self-consciously commenting on its own naïve premise. However, where you would expect this to be used as a means of comedy, mocking the story, it is a statement. The film pushes through the sarcasm and the cynicism. So what if other people have the same dream, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a beautiful story to be told here. So what if that kiss in the cinema would have been totally sappy and cheesy, we’re celebrating love here, so get out with your nagging. At the same time, the film is also honest about the problems its characters’ face. It does not ignore that, following your dreams, you might fail, you might find something else that also fulfils you, and you certainly will have to sacrifice other aspects of your life. It is such an impressive and complete treatment of the topic.
As to how it presents all this, it is unapologetically larger than life as well. In his camera-work and lighting, Chazelle gleefully casts aside the usual Hollywood style, which would try to make itself as invisible to the audience as possible, in favour of whipping the camera around full of energy and spotlighting the characters when they have their moment. Oh yes, and also, characters have a tendency to break into song, so that’s not normal either. The music is rooted in Chazelle’s background in Jazz and it is incredibly catchy. I literally woke up the morning after I saw it with “Another Day of Sun” in my head.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make for two incredibly charismatic leads and excel in their roles. Gosling learned to play the Piano from scratch and performs from the heart. He might have had to learn all the music by heart, but it feels as if he’s playing from the heart. Acting, huh… Gosling also shows an enthusiasm that is incredibly refreshing to see, especially when he talks about Jazz. Emma Stone on the other hand shows us the brutal reality of auditioning for roles, just to be interrupted by someone bringing coffee. As the movie begins, she has almost been beaten into submission, but her magnetic personality still shines through. When Gosling and Stone share the screen, they bring out the best in each other. It’s fascinating to see both of them be challenged in their dedication to their dream.
The brilliance of “La La Land” is that it manages to embody the wide-eyed joy that comes with the big music numbers and the love story at its centre as well as a nuanced deconstruction of the shiny world of celebrity and stardom. It was Chazelle’s passion project, and as far as I’m concerned, he was able to put everything he wanted on screen and it’s a magnificent piece of film. I feel sorry for all the deserving films who will lose their Academy Awards to it.