One might suspect by the simple title that my expectations to the most anticipated film of 2016 (personally speaking) were not met, but that shouldn’t be your conclusion. Rather, just take it as a caution that my expectations may not have been aligned to the correct reality…
Mia is a Nevadan native in the thick of the aspiring Hollywood scene. She gets front seat to it as well, being a studio barista and all. But Mia, as we quickly learn, isn’t just dreaming of a life in the coffee shop. Rather, she too has big ambitions of being an actress and/or screen-writer. Sebastian likewise has nothing to flaunt regarding his jazz piano-playing career status (which fluctuates between sad to nonexistent). While his dream is more of preserving classic jazz than anything else, he still hopes to open his own jazz club someday. What happens when these two troubled misfit lives collide? A whole lot of song, dance, and realistically heart wrenching conflict, to be quite honest.
While this highly fun, dazzling, snappy, romantic, and delightful film has been one of the most marvelous spectacles I’ve witnessed this year. It is worth noting that this film seemed to be billed as a classic and inspiring ode to dreamers and hard workers everywhere. A film in which we can see and witness blossoming love and opportunity burst at the seams. There is one catch though, this film seems to be more of director Damien Chazelle’s personal and at times cynical viewpoint of the Hollywood scene, rather than a just typical musical/rom-com. Rarely have I seen a film place what seems to be the director on center stage, while making the main characters feel more like symbolic figurines, than in La La Land. Let me explain…
La La Land, in its simplest definition, is a modern look at 50’s-60’s Hollywood musical nostalgia (emphasis on the modern). It is a film drenched in the past, what with the stunning music, art direction, choreography, and its vividly old-school cinematography (which is bound to catch every Oscar the Academy can throw at it). I particularly liked the opening/closing credits, which just reeked of Singin’ In The Rain and An American in Paris. But don’t think this film is all style and no substance. Take the characters (and actors) for example. Ryan Gosling as the suave and sarcastic jazz enthusiast is the picture of old-school heartthrob (who impressed in The Nice Guys earlier this year). He delivers every word, emotion, and charming banter down to perfection. In short, he has never played himself more flawlessly (not a bash, just a fact). I particularly liked his scene where he nearly loses his cool rattling off jazz facts, thanks to Mia merely disregarding his passion because she doesn’t “like” jazz. Being someone passionate about specific entertainment, it was rather comically relatable. But who really ought to have got the top billing slot in this flick was the remarkable Emma Stone. She is at her all-time best as the relatable, high-spirited, and the inwardly skeptical dreamer. As a young lady with hardly a shot in the world of La La Land, she clearly displays every emotion of fight and struggle those in the industry must face. In short, Stone and Gosling share the picture-perfect chemistry of film couples from yester-year.
But who is the real star in this spectacular city? I would give that top honor to the young and imaginative director, Damien Chazelle (who directed one of my favorite films of 2014, Whiplash). Because, while the romance and tale are seamlessly engaging, witty, nostalgic, and even difficult, you can’t help but sense the characters featured here are all part of something bigger. You see, the film opens in scores of some of the most dazzling old-school colors, visual backdrops, and musical productions that made me literally want to standup and cheer (they are that fantastic!). But we take a slow turn for the reverse when the songs turn slower, the story turns more dire, and the mood somber. Why? Because this film seems to be a modern spotlight of sorts on the industry that created it to begin with. It is for this very fact, I believe, that some viewers are turned away from the old-school departure. I will admit, this film has enough heart and emotion to put an extra sparkle of hope in the most ambitious of dreamers (or as the film likes to call them, fools). And while I think those emotions were intentional, and done rather splendidly, I still can’t help but feel this film isn’t all paparazzi and roses. Rather, take a look at the director himself. Chazelle, being the remarkably young age of 31, has (and will) received far more success than many in his field. He himself is an example of a tireless worker, and you can almost feel his love for music and film on display at every turn. But he isn’t blind to the fact that many aspiring in this industry will meet humiliating, unfair, and unimaginable circumstances, with little to show for it. One scene I found to be rather revealing was when our lovable couple is facing the most conflicting of times. Here, they seem to be appropriately placed underneath a lovely and stylish neon spot light. But as the camera focuses outward, you notice they are under the only light in the midst of a dark and dreary alley. Coincidence? Chazelle knows and seems to be reminiscing over the difficulty, the failure, and even the price-tag this industry comes with, even if you are one of the lucky ones to come out a success story.
“It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!” are the film’s advertised words, which are meant to excite and inspire. But they are also very warning in and of themselves. I know it is an easy application, but when one looks to Matthew 16:26 regarding “losing one’s soul”, one can’t help but ask if the fame is truly worth it? Chazelle seems to be uncertain about that. But regardless, he still can’t deny what beauty, what extravaganza, and what fun La La Land has brought us throughout the years. I believe it is for this reason also that there are some rich and beneficial themes of appreciating and loving your past, all the while still looking to keeping your sights on your future (Ecclesiastes 7:10). So, while this film does ask difficult questions, it can’t help but pay homage to such a fun history (and one of my personal favorite film eras)! This film for many won’t be perfect; the scattered and harsh profanity, the fact that Mia and Sebastian move in together as unweds, and some modesty issues (in the form of a specific pool scene) won’t help the matter any. But for many, the reasons that it may not be your particular cup of tea will be largely thanks to its visual storytelling, the fact that the narrative lulls a bit in the middle portion, and its rather bold (and brave) decision not to follow the typical romance clichés we are accustomed to. But as a film lover, and one who hasn’t witnessed a decent film like this in years, I can’t help but feel that I’ll be visiting and loving La La Land again many times to come.
9/10 (with a filtering device, as well as proper expectation, this would be a solid 10/10)