LA LA LAND (2016) is for the Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me

I am unable to contain myself over how much I loved La La Land. I want to say so much about it entirely in half-formed sentences that bump up against and into each-other because on one hand it feels like the most infectiously happy movie of the year, but on the other, that the movie’s main motif is in minor key is by no means just coincidental. It is a movie that opens on a bombastic highway musical number involving dozens of singers and dancers clad in primary colors – none of whom are our main characters – and ends on the most jaw-droppingly beautiful denouement of any movie in recent memory. La La Land is confident enough to be this completely post-ironic, committed throwback musical with diegetic tap-dancing, but self-consciously defends its existence as a product of candy-colored nostalgia.

La La Land concerns the lives of two Los Angelenos aspiring to fulfill the promise of the city. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress constantly running from her job as a studio-lot barista to the next audition, where she’s made to read network-TV dribble along with dozens of look-alikes to casting agents who barely pay attention to her, and lives with three other young women looking for their big break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist too stubborn to hold a job as a restaurant piano-man if it means playing Christmas songs in December, and whose dream is to open a jazz club that will single-handedly keep the dying genre alive in LA. The two refuse to meet-cute, even singing a duet about it, but within time fall hard for each-other, seemingly driven by the other’s dreaming. But, over the course of a year, the pull of their respective ambitions also threatens to pull them apart.

Mia and Sebastian are both characters that I would probably detest in any other movie, or if I met them in real life. Even at her best, Mia is an over-eager people-pleaser, and has the sort of confidence that allows her to write a play about her own experiences moving to Hollywood from a small town. Sebastian is stubborn and smug, almost a parody of the “white guy that likes jazz.” Both should be insufferable, but, largely due to the amazing performances of the leads, are completely magnetic. There is something infectious about the big dreams and boundless enthusiasm the two characters have for themselves, how deeply they’ve committed themselves to finding that Rainbow Connection that shows them who they’re supposed to be.

I bring up the Kermit classic because one of the songs in the film, sung by Mia during an audition, has a similar melody during the chorus; but also because both songs, and La La Land as a whole, are about the same thing. They’re about chasing that rainbow, that illusory brightness that promises happiness on the other side. We want them to succeed in part because we want to keep believing in that magic too. Through artistic excess, La La Land shows us how much sadder the world would be without such dreamers.

Like any great cinematic musical number, La La Land feels almost completely improvised, as if the entire world breaking into a choreographed routine was as simple as making small talk; but of course, making things look easy takes masterful skill and talent, and every element of La La Land is drowning in it. Gosling and Stone’s acting and chemistry is incredible, to the point where you forget those two idealistic strivers are actually critically acclaimed actors. The camera isn’t afraid to get close either, really showcasing just how well these two can run the gamut of emotion, playing with the smallest detectable emotional ticks to the broadness of dance.

Damien Chazelle’s directing comes off the same way, once again making the one-shot take and a weaving camera feel naturalistic instead of like the stunting maneuver such shots really are. At the same time he captures the pure energy of the musical numbers, a trick of the editing allows him to draw out the moments of quiet between songs.

Shooting on film, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, captures colors at their most saturated, each one popping off the screen distinct from the one next to it. Everything in this movie is doing its darndest to step into the foreground, like in Jazz, each element finding its place to lead the movie’s rhythm.

Also, miraculously, considering this is both a rom-com and a musical, there was no point in the movie that felt overly contrived. The musical cues are telegraphed, but never in a way that makes you roll your eyes at the upcoming song. Every joke and plot-point and set-piece feels like an organic development, even across the various time-skips. It never feels like the movie is skipping a beat, or forcing the characters to act irrationally to keep the plot moving.

True to its title, La La Land is a cinematic dream, a fantasy projected on a screen. It’s the type of movie that feels like it exists purely for itself, because the director has dreamt about seeing this movie come to life for years and finally convinced actors and producers and everyone else to help him scratch this burning itch. If this weren’t only his third film (his second anyone outside of the festival circuit has even heard of), people would proclaim this as Chazelle’s magnum opus, but the last 10 minutes alone only heighten expectations for the young director. In just over two hours, La La Land will make all but the grumpiest people find a love and respect for the Hollywood musical. While reactions to the ending will vary, no movie this year will leave you happier just for having watched it. Frankly, I can’t wait to re-watch it.