From the movie’s title, it will come as no surprise that La La Land is a paean to Hollywood. But in director Damien Chazelle’s hands, the genres of musical, romance, and drama and mixed together and reimagined in bold technicolor. A movie meta (and self-aware) enough to tell a story of struggling artists starring huge celebrities and actual struggling artists hoping that this movie will be their big break provides Inception level brain knots. Mia, an actress, and Sebastian, a jazz musician, meet (sort of) cute (he blares his car horn at her in traffic, she reciprocates with a one-finger salute) and through subsequent chance encounters realize they are made for each other.
But once the two become a couple, the trade offs each makes became a bit more acute, the stakes grow higher. Her talent also lies in playwriting, but it does not pay the bills and her acting career has hit a dead end. He wants to maintain his artistic purity but knows the sands are slipping through the hourglass to achieve his dream of opening his own club. He sacrifices that integrity to get a steady gig as a sideman with a jazz fusion group so she can write without the pressure of work but he sees in that a snuffing of his own hopes and becomes resentful toward her because of it. She gives up after one-too-many casting directors barely look up while she auditions and her one-woman show, which he no-shows, is sparsely attended.
The movie owes much of its charm to the chemistry between its two lead actors. Stone and Gosling light up the screen and Chazelle wisely leans into the natural affinity they seem to have toward one another. Stone’s snarky devil-may-care attitude is on display them Mia tweaks Sebastian by requesting that his Eighties tribute band play “I Ran,” requiring him to dig deep into his keytar as she lip syncs the words with a maniacal grin on her face. Pure genius. And Gosling gives as good as he gets - there is a rakish charm in his flirtation with her, but beneath the reservations he has about his own ability to commit, you see goodness. After their inevitable break-up, it is he who tracks her down back home in Nevada to let her know that the one-woman, one-night only play — which she adjudged a failure — had been seen by a casting director who ends up launching her career.
While Stone and Gosling carry the film, Chazelle sprinkles in supporting roles that round out the whole. John Legend plays Keith, Sebastian’s frenemy, a fellow musician not at all uncomfortable with exchanging the purity of jazz for commercial success. Rosemary DeWitt, who some may recognize as Don Draper’s first paramour Midge in Mad Men, is Laura, Sebastian’s sister, offering exposition on his background while goading him into climbing out of his hermetic shell to live in the world. While these roles are small, they provide needed context. You see Sebastian’s resignation when he agrees to join Keith’s band, the glum look of trading fidelity to his craft for a steady paycheck and the excitement of celebrating his sister’s engagement and marriage.
And jazz is an appropriate musical genre for Chazelle to choose. His film, is, in its own way, a reflection of that improvisational form - hints of everything from Requiem For A Dream to Dick Tracy, Boogie Nights, Swingers, Fame, and Singin’ in the Rain are feathered throughout the movie and of course, the dance numbers, musical sequences, and Art Deco fonts are all nods to the Golden Age of movie making.
La La Land is a love letter to Hollywood, but Chazelle avoids the “Hollywood ending.” The movie’s coda flashes forward five years. Mia and Sebastian have both attained what they desired - she is now a successful actress who struts into the coffee shop where she once worked and he owns a capital J jazz club, filled with young people embracing the music in its unadulterated form. But their success has come at a cost - they are no longer together. As a spotlight frames the two, Chazelle offers an alternate take, a “what if” history where their fates are different, where the pettiness and struggle that pulled them apart is instead replaced with support and fidelity. That couple achieves a different kind of success - marriage, a child, grainy home videos of baby’s first steps and birthday parties. It is a haunting panorama, so pregnant with the basic human emotions of regret and love lost.
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