“Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem / Here’s to the hearts that ache / Here’s to the mess we make.” Those are the lines that draw the deepest emotion in Damien Chazelle’s stirring, swirling and singing ditty, La La Land. Without regard to the international clamour that the film has riled up, every second of La La Land deserves applause.
The idea that Chazelle would have Emma Stone share screen time with Ryan Gosling is a wise one for two reasons: firstly, Stone and The Gos are known for their undeniably electric chemistry in the hit movie Crazy, Stupid Love. Reprising their roles as star-crossed lovers is bound to get the millennial crowd’s attention, while also convenient for young moviegoers who may not be entirely familiar with the age of Judy Garland and Clark Gable that La La Land seeks so badly to pay homage to. In the end, Stone and Gosling light up the screen with their infectiously believable intimacy, striking the right balance between charmingly endearing and a little saccharine for good measure. They are the Fred and Ginger of our generation – affable and polished.
The movie opens with a rousing musical number, setting the tone and giving audiences who detest musical movies the chance to slip out of the cinema (after all, Chazelle is known for his love of jazz, having directed 2014’s award-winning Whiplash). What follows soon after is a heady combination of summer romance, aspirations and the reality behind chasing your dreams. In essence, it’s a simple story: there’s a ‘meet cute’, then tension that blossoms into intimacy , before withering in a bittersweet end. While the film’s backbone feels formulaic, Chazelle’s directorial control makes it enjoyable. Stone brings her likeability to the role of Mia, an aspiring actress who finds that the road to Hollywood Hills is an upward battle. Opposite her, Gosling plays Sebastian, a crochety jazz pianist with dreams bigger than all his paychecks combined. Together, they sing, soft-shoe and flirt with each other and the audience.
"The film is built around one question: 'How much are you willing to sacrifice to fulfil your dreams?'"
Chazelle is eager to dazzle viewers with sweeping shots of jazz dancers and catchy tunes, as he writes his sonata to the golden age of Hollywood; but at the movie’s heart is a story that seeks resonance with younger audiences. The film is built around one question: “How much are you willing to sacrifice to fulfil your dreams?” Without giving too much away, a key development in our protagonists’ arch pits their tectonic relationship against the currents of changing goals and growing careers. This plays close to the hearts of more than a few viewers who’ve had to give up dear things to reach something greater. Love is a wonderful thing, but ambition in one’s career can pull just as strongly.
Special mention should be given to Justin Hurwitz, Linus Sandgren and Gosling. Hurwitz’s genius is in the songwriting that scores the majority of the film. Through subtle rises and dips, he takes the audiences through a medley of emotions, taking the viewer from hopeful to forlorn with the flick of a note. Sandgren’s cinematography will undoubtedly get his due come awards season, but to pan over it here would be criminal. Challenging the actors to slip between speech and song within single, uninterrupted takes, he allows for the camera to glide around their every move that makes the viewing experience so pleasant. Every frame is lit and coloured deliberately, from the velvety purple of sunsets to the fluorescent green that contrasts Stone’s red hair and lavender dress, and cinephiles will relish his painting of Chazelle’s vision. Gosling impresses with his ability to do more than just play-pretend on the piano – and, like Miles Teller in Chazelle’s Whiplash, the director revealed in a recent interview that every time you see his leading man play the piano throughout the film, it’s all Gosling.
Falling short of perfection, the ‘Summer’ and ‘Fall’ acts of the film drone on a little longer than necessary, and, in these moments, overwrought sappiness clouds the brilliance of its characters. But, as box offices will surely slap the cheap “musical rom-com” label on to La La Land, the movie still brings about prodigious depth, while retaining feel-good moments throughout its 128 minutes. It’s subtly confrontational, beautifully shot, and tempered evenly with a stable of talented actors who might just catch your sentimental side off-guard.
Here’s to Chazelle, for dreaming this wonderful mess up.
Text Aaron Kok
Images Various Sources