I have a confession to make, I had already half written off La La Land before stepping into the theater. The promos and trailers I saw made me think this film would be just a nostalgic romp through a genre that had already passed us by. There would be cute modern reminders in it for a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, and La La Land would basically have been crafted by Hollywood for Hollywood.
After the first opening musical number, I knew I was right. I crossed my arms in cynicism and noted that at least the choreography of that opening scene was extremely well done, but I felt confident that I was right. An actor and musician struggling in Los Angeles to make ends meet, as told in the form of a musical — how much more cliche could this film get?
But as La La Land unspooled, it slowly dawned on me that writer/director Damien Chazelle (the highly acclaimed Whiplash) is a damned brilliant filmmaker. Yes, the film is filled with all of the hopeful optimism of a musical, and yes it is nostalgic for things gone by — but, my God, does Chazelle know it.
As the story moves forward, the cynicism about the folly of following your dreams starts to creep in, and even when one of the characters finds success, it isn’t exactly the success they were looking for. La La Land is equal parts earnest and equal part a subversive deconstruction. It is a love letter to films of the past but doesn’t shy away from pointing out they took place on a backlot.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are mesmerizing as the star crossed lovers reaching for the stars. Their singing is passable, their dancing is fantastic, and Gosling apparently learned piano for the role (and looks like he’s been playing his whole life), but their on-screen chemistry is palpable. Maybe that’s why this is their third outing together.
For all the dance numbers, singing, and gorgeously shot choreography — seriously, you should watch La La Land for Linus Sandgren’s cinematography alone — the film is about following your dreams. Anyone who has ever done that (especially in any creative field) knows the highs and lows of following your passion, and the almost unbearable grind of being rejected time and time again.
The glitz and glamour of Hollywood as depicted in the beautiful musical pieces are contrasted with the ugly parts of Los Angeles, such as the water stain in the characters’ bedroom. It dares to ask whether success is fame and fortune, or whether there is a deeper form of success for dreamers and makers. The final montage La La Land delivers perhaps one of the most poignant, melancholy, and uplifting denouements I’ve seen in a while (excluding the end of Arrival).
I went into La La Land a skeptic, and the film reminded me that it is ok to be cynical. Just don’t let it get in the way of your dreams.
Here’s the trailer for La La Land: