LA LA LAND (2016)


Director: Damien Chazelle

Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons


Out of ****

Let me just open with this: if all of this is truly meant to be taken at face-value, then this alleged reprisal of the Hollywood musical (I was unaware there was a dearth of these) is fairly unremarkable. Most of the praise for La La Land seems to circle around its rather on the surface message of following your dreams, and the romantic magic of Hollywood and the arts. Somehow I am having trouble wrapping my brain around the notion that Damien Chazelle, a man who directed a film that posited that perhaps it is okay to put pupils through relentless mental and occasional physical abuse – in order to bring them to their full artistic potential, would turn around and make a sincere film about how basically wishing for the life you’ve dreamed of, will make it so.

La La Land is nothing if not a refreshingly light, tap-dancing time of a musical (except for a 30 minute break in the 3rd act where it’s not) with an effortlessly watchable beginning and middle. I spent the first hour of the film grinning like a fool. Simultaneously bright and aesthetically pleasing; it’s refreshing to see a Hollywood musical that does not have to leave the scene and dump the cast onto a backlot stage in order to break into song. The first scene is an energetic opening number (complete with song & dance) which takes place on the ramp connecting L.A.'s 105 and 110 freeways.

Stars, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone do not quite carry the film with their voices but their chemistry and charm (and dance) more than make up for it. Say what you will about Gosling’s rather neck-down performance, no one plays I’m not in on the joke better than this guy. Gosling’s Seb is a self-righteous Jazz enthusiast whose dream is to open his own club; these hopes are dashed (rather frequently) at a moment’s notice whenever someone implies that maybe people just don't listen to Jazz anymore. This sad-sack old-school jazz-man spends his evenings getting canned from various piano gigs at LA restaurants, stubbornly refusing to stick to the set-list – always insisting upon playing one song to the delight of no one but a stranger. That stranger is Emma Stone’s Mia, a struggling actress working at a coffee shop. Mia bounces around from audition to audition when she's not spending her time resigning herself to the fact that she’s never going to make it as an actress.  There’s a cynical overtone to the plotting here - although it’s occasionally implied that these two are not quite talented enough to fulfill their lofty pursuits, they each fall ass-backward into success; such is Hollywood. In fact, one of the first songs entitled 'Someone in the Crowd' textually comes across like it's all about never giving up because you don't know who'll be there at that next audition, but felt to me more like a derisive reminder of how luck-based success in these fields ultimately is. 

The actual textual romantic story between the leads is (to put it mildly) bare-bones, and that seems to be part of the commentary. These two are completely self-absorbed, to the point where they know what art-form the other is passionate about, but cannot be bothered to learn what each other value from their relationship. The key conflicts between them are so basic and avoidable, it’s obvious these two narcissists can’t bother to learn the first thing about the other outside of their Hollywood aspirations.  

La La Land as an awards favorite, is garnering a similar narrative to recent Best Picture winners Birdman and The Artist, two films that also fit the ‘Hollywood pats itself on the back , while smugly mocking itself' mold.  Two years ago the great film-critic & malcontent Sean Burns described Birdman in a year-end podcast thusly:

“You know how in the first hour of AMERICAN BEAUTY, you think they’re making fun of these people – and then the second hour you’re like ‘oh my god, this director takes this seriously and I want to kill myself,’ that was my experience with BIRDMAN.”

I had similar thoughts around the 90 minute mark of La La Land, until a couple of character choices reassured me of my earlier sentiments, that this is all an elaborate mockery. Seb and Mia have their respective dreams, and while this is a love story – their real loves are themselves. When Seb gets a stable gig in a popular band, which plays Jazz but not the rarified type that he likes, he heroically manages to somewhat mask his contempt - after-all he’s only getting a couple grand a paycheck to play in a god-damn band. Seb’s career path runs up against a crucial one-night performance of Mia's – her performance falling on the night of a not so important band photo-shoot. The band-frontman Keith (John Legend), gives Seb an out for missing it (“the photo-shoot is tonight, can you make it?”), but Seb decides to attend anyway. Without spoiling too much, this decision is despondently selfish given what has transpired between Mia & Seb; adding insult to injury it's painstakingly obvious that the photo-shoot is a complete joke, but Seb stays for the whole thing anyway - to Mia’s dumfounded chagrin.

Of course - Mia isn’t exactly without moments of antipathy for those close to her. (Hell, at the story's open, she has a very serious boyfriend whom she abandons in the middle of a dinner with his family, and never references again). During a climactic number we are privy to Mia’s ultimate fantasy; a glamorous montage playing out in her head: her and Seb together after their first meeting, a perfect match from start to finish as her career flourishes and they raise a family together – there’s just one catch, there’s not a hint of Seb making it big, opening his own club, or doing anything that would remotely be described as ‘chasing and achieving his dreams.’ Mia at one point belts at her big audition 'Here’s to the dreamers who dream,' but really it's here's to the singular dreamer…you and only you. These two are madly in love, until it’s an inconvenience.

Maybe I am ultimately misinterpreting this, but after all it doesn’t matter - I can think Chazelle is mocking Hollywood without him intentionally doing it. The motion picture industry and its stars and its excesses are in and of themselves self-parody.  A lifestyle that 99% of working age people cannot fathom; the stakes in La La Land seem relatively low when looking at the Seb & Mia’s pursuits, but incredibly low when comparing them to any other aspect of modern life. Chazelle even needlessly breaks up the film in seasonal segments, with title cards labeled ‘Winter,’ ‘Spring,’ etc. even though the entire movie looks like it could have been shot on the same perfect 75 degree day; a blunt reminder of how good these thin-skinned narcissists have it, day in and day out. (The aforementioned opening number featuring people tap-dancing on their cars is in-part about how the weather is relentlessly sunny.) 

La La Land is successful because it works on two distinct levels, it is a corny romantic comedy/musical with delightful leads and a toe-tapping score for the masses (full disclosure: I am listening to the soundtrack as I pound away on my keyboard), but it is much more rewarding approaching it as a great-satire of the same type of reverence it's depicting, with the knowledge in mind that Chazelle’s mind is at least a few shades darker than the surface-material typically allows.