Nostalgia is an easy sell. People love the familiar dressed up as something new, but this isn’t a wholly negative concept. I’ll be the first to tell you that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a supremely enjoyable film made even more so by the feelings of childlike glee it inspired within me. The same could be said about La La Land, the new film by Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle. It is a work of art born out of nostalgia and a deep appreciation for the musicals of old Hollywood, and yet it, like The Force Awakens, succeeds by twisting the familiar into something new and timely.
At its core, La La Land is about dreamers, the pursuit of one’s dreams and the cost of that journey. The two dreamers in question are Mia and Sebastian. Mia is an aspiring actress and current barista, constantly attending auditions with the hopes of one day being accepted for her craft. Sebastian is a jazz musician working to bring his dream of owning a jazz club to life in an age where jazz is neither popular nor profitable. By chance both meet and so begins a tale of love and loss in modern Hollywood set to an array of dazzling musical numbers.
The real star of this film is Justin Hurwitz, the composer, who provides a score that is catchy, eclectic, and instantly memorable. There are orchestral swells and twinkling chimes, propulsive jazz numbers and quiet piano solos. All are woven into larger, repeated themes that are cleverly altered throughout the film to match the tone of the scene in which they appear, always at exactly the right moment to tug at the heartstrings the most. As a person who lived in relative ignorance of jazz before Whiplash, with both of these films I am now thoroughly intrigued and appreciative of jazz’s legacy and the staggering talent it takes to play it. A song being constructed in real time is a fascinating thing to witness.
In contrast, there’s an obvious structure to the film’s plot, but it is skillfully crafted and knowledgeable of the nostalgic idealism that people crave. Writer/director Damien Chazelle ultimately succeeds in creating a film that is both unique and surprising by touching on those classic, cliché moments then immediately deviating from them in ways that are not always dramatically pleasing, but true. All the twists here are subtle and believable in the scheme of the lives these characters are trying to lead and the dramatic heft of the picture comes from the pursuit of their dreams and how the similar circumstances they found themselves in at their meeting change as they both begin to experience a measure of success.
Yet Hurwitz’s score and Chazelle’s writing wouldn’t mean very much if the audience didn’t buy into Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. Luckily Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have a ridiculous amount of chemistry (they previously starred together in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Gangster Squad). Stone is perfect as a young woman who has been told “No” so much that her once vibrant hope for her future career as an actress is little more than a guttering flame. Beneath her good-natured and easy banter is a fragility and self-doubt that is as likely to stop her from achieving her goals as an executive’s pass. Likewise, Gosling plays his charming everyman heart out, making Sebastian both relatable and obsessive, a talented musician crippled by his perfectionism and resistance to change. Their relationship is the perfect alchemy of push and pull, as each struggles to make the other see their worth and continue the pursuit of their dreams.
Speaking of dreams, whether it’s Mia and Sebastian waltzing through a fantastical starry landscape or a group of drivers deciding to have a song and dance number on a freeway overpass, this film is strikingly beautiful and never wanting for a touch of magic. Like a dream everything is the same, yet different; the fantastical lurks just beneath the surface, ready to spring out at the barest hint of a song. The whole film is bathed in soft pinks, deep blues, and lush purples, making Los Angeles into a dreamscape of possibility; the sets and sights are accented by the stellar costuming that clothes the characters in bold colors that stand out in sharp contrast to the environments surrounding them. The glorious production, art, and costume design is highlighted by the beautiful camera work of cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy) who along with Chazelle captures the majority of the musical numbers in long, uninterrupted takes. There’s an intimacy to this method of filming, one that puts the focus squarely upon the performer and fortunately neither Stone nor Gosling miss a step. I was particularly impressed by Stone’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and every time Gosling touched a piano since he learned how to play the instrument specifically for this film.
There’s little else that can be said about La La Land without spoiling the experience. I urge you to see it in the biggest theatre you can with as many people as possible. Why? Because it is a joyous cinematic experience that touches on the best of what film has to offer as a medium. It’s a musical. It’s a love story. It’s one of, if not the best film of the year.