La La Land, the modern day musical film from director Damien Chazelle that stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, does this rather incredulous thing–it actually lives up to its trailer. For all its hype, leading the Critics Choice Awards, winning TIFF’s People’s Choice Award, rave reviews, you still don’t expect to float out of the theatre on a cloud after seeing the film, and yet you do.
La La Land is set in modern day Los Angeles and tells the story of Mia (Stone), a struggling actress who works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, and Sebastian (Gosling), a pianist determined to keep jazz out of the clutches of commercialism, who dreams of opening up his own club one day to keep the music alive. Sparks don’t exactly fly the first few times Mia and Sebastian meet, but as fate would have it, they tend to run in the same circles and hesitant sparks begin to crackle between the two. The romance that develops is a whirlwind of jazz and gauzy dresses and moonlit strolls, but beneath all that lays a very true, almost unbearably lovely connection between two dreamers who see one another quite clearly.
Still, Mia and Sebastian have both made Hollywood their home in order to make their dreams a reality, and their love tends to run right alongside the trajectory of their careers. As time passes, both of their artistic endeavors begin to grow and change, as do their expectations for the future. After blissfully floating across the stars at Griffith Observatory, reality brings the couple hurtling right back towards Earth.
What Chazelle has done with La La Land is a feat to be adored and enjoyed for years to come. Take the opening scene–a musical number shot in one take on an actual freeway, dancers spilling in and out of cars as far as the eye can see. That scene is an initiation into Chazelle’s vision of Los Angeles as this resilient, unequivocally romantic city, where you could be miserable and stuck in standstill traffic but still dreaming about what the day holds. Apart from being a glorious introduction to CineScope, in which the film is shot, the opening scene also ropes us in immediately with music by Justin Hurwitz (and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). The La La Land soundtrack explodes with jazzy horns and piano riffs when appropriate, but mostly sticks to bittersweet piano melodies that Stone and Gosling hum and whistle along to.
Perhaps more than anything, La La Land thrives due to its very conscious fusion of styles. There are handfuls of colorful, breathtaking moments that of course bring to mind classic films like Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but Chazelle grounds his musical in modern day realities, too. The ringing of an iPhone interrupts Mia and Sebastian’s breezy waltz in Griffith Park at sunset just as it was getting good, and their electrifying almost-kiss at the Rialto is blundered when the projector hits a snag. Life may be all song and dance in this film, but it doesn’t deny that shit still manages to get in the way, even in the middle of some beautiful oeuvre. In this way, across both plot and cinematography, La La Land is an amalgamation of what Hollywood once was and what Los Angeles is now. People still dream, but there are plenty of discrepancies along the way. Jazz clubs in Los Angeles still exist, but sometimes they’re turned into a place to get tapas.
The beginning of La La Land and the end might leave you frustrated, wondering if this is any kind of love story at all. But then you understand, of course, that love, however fleeting, will always grant you something permanent. As in the case of this film, that sort of love might even lead you exactly where you need to go.