Whiplash came and took everybody by surprise, in large part because it was such a remarkable debut from writer/director Damien Chazelle. I was one of those who really liked the film when it came out, but my views changed considerably upon further discussion with my musician friends and reflection on my own life as a part-time drummer (of sorts).
Put simply, Whiplash succeeds because it focuses on the passion and sacrifice that comes with competing and working to be a great musician. But it fails because it either skimps on or outright ignores the joy of music. There’s nothing about the camaraderie of being in a band, nothing about having fun, it’s all just one heartache after another. Oh, and the arts community is such a small world — even in New York — that J.K. Simmons’ character probably would’ve gotten fired and blackballed before the film had even started.
Also, never once do any of the drummers practice with a metronome. Bullshit.
Anyway, I had much higher hopes for La La Land, Chazelle’s follow-up. Yes, the trailers showed more of the cutthroat competitive nature of music, yet I still saw so much that looked fanciful and uplifting. It’s a romantic dramedy musical, for God’s sake.
But oh, gentle reader. La La Land delivered on everything I had expected and so much more.
She’s Mia (Emma Stone), your typical aspiring actress who came to LA from her tiny little town (Boulder City, NV, in this case) who’s working as a put-upon barista until she makes it big. He’s Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of working where he doesn’t have to play any watered-down bullshit for anyone who can’t tell true art from elevator music.
Our two leads meet each other and gradually strike up a romance, inspiring each other to reach loftier heights. Mia writes and stages her own one-woman show on her way to being a star. Sebastian joins a band that becomes wildly successful, earning and steady paycheck so he can save up and buy his own club. As to whether or not either of them will actually succeed in the long run and whether their romance will survive their efforts… well, that’s the crux of our show.
It also bears mentioning that the very first time we meet these two, he’s driving a retro convertible with a tape deck while she’s driving a Prius. The contrast of old versus new plays a huge part in this film, especially given the old-school inclinations of our characters. Mia laments over the death of cinema and theatre, as people are increasingly driven away to hole up in their home theater systems. Sebastian is furious over the death of jazz, as music gets increasingly prepackaged and watered down, without any of the pain, passion, improvisation, or discovery that makes true art. Both of these characters mourn the old getting lost to the new, and both in different ways that dovetail beautifully. It also forces them to reckon with the present they have to actually live in and the future that’s coming whether anyone likes it or not. Holding onto the past will only do so much good, and hanging onto what might have been won’t do any good at all.
The old/new contrast is especially important as a shorthand for the more heightened nature of this picture. Every time the film dips into 20th-century sensibilities — such as old-school cinema flourishes, jazz musical stylings, and even an ’80s cover band — the film treats it as a break from the oppressive reality of 21st century life. The whole film becomes more heightened and magical, beautifully expressing the characters’ emotions in the moment. Sometimes this comes by way of a lighting shift that takes every other character out of the shot. Other times, it’s something as simple as a background mural of old-school cinematic icons. But typically, it’s a hugely elaborate song-and-dance number.
The entire film, on every conceivable level, is a tribute to dreams. It’s all about longing for true love, visions of paradise, wishes for greatness, anything your heart desires and your mind can conceive. Dreams are what make life worth living — hell, sometimes dreams are the only thing that keep us going — and dreams are what can motivate the whole world to change. That said, dreams will only go so far before reality sets in. And that’s where you need passion.
Passion is essential because if you don’t give a damn, how can anyone else? The absolute best way to make sure that dreams come true is to go after them with nothing less than 100 percent. Even so, there’s always the chance of failure, and failure is especially awful when it means losing everything you’ve put into it (which is to say, everything). But hey, no risk means no reward. And it’s entirely possible that one failure may lead to another potential success in unforeseeable ways.
Dreams may not always come true, but some of them certainly do. Yet they may not always come true in the way that’s expected. Sometimes making one dream happen means letting go of another. That’s sacrifice, which is part of any serious work effort. It’s also give-and-take, which is part of collaboration, which is part of just about any artistic endeavor.
This brings me to Keith (John Legend), who comes in somewhere around the halfway point to offer Sebastian a place in that band I briefly mentioned earlier. Keith envisions a band that brings jazz to the masses by way of modern pop style. He argues that staying in the same place will never get anyone to the next level. Nobody ever became a revolutionary by sticking to the old — the greats all changed the game by introducing something new. It’s a nice idea in theory, and the band does indeed turn in some brilliant work to great success. But there’s still the question of how to strike that balance between the old and the new. When does that vision become so diluted that passion for the original is lost? When does style overpower substance? And naturally there’s the question of when you’re creating art to make money, and when you’re making money to create art.
All of this is stuff you’ve undoubtedly seen in umpteen other movies, but that’s not as much of an issue when we’re talking about a film that so unapologetically embraces the old. Moreover, the statements about passion work because this movie is positively overflowing with it. The central romance and the characters’ own artistic endeavors are all brought to the screen with absolutely everything that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have to offer.
More than that, the musical format allows the film to be so much more heightened in those moments of greatest passion, as we watch the characters literally dance on air and sing their emotions to any stranger who might be listening. It doesn’t make any sense for the song-and-dance numbers to be actually happening, of course, but I don’t think they’re supposed to be. They’re a visual representation of what the characters want and feel in the moment, and it’s so infectiously beautiful and fun that I was sharing in those same feelings; emotionally invested hook, line, and sinker from start to finish. It’s the characters’ fantasies, we’re watching them, and the fantasies are all so uplifting that I never wanted them to stop.
Furthermore, a lot of that works because of the 1950s-’60s Hollywood style. Not that portraying the subject of dreams by way of movies or Hollywood is anything new, of course, but again it works because every last person involved with this picture went all in. We’re talking about Golden Age Hollywood excess married to 21st-century CGI: If you think the sky’s the limit, you’re still thinking too small. We’re talking about continuous long shots through graceful camerawork and flawless editing, vibrant costumes and production design, energetic choreography, and songs that will have you humming long after you leave the theater, all brought together into one jaw-dropping phantasmagoria after another.
As for miscellaneous notes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention J.K. Simmons, who obligingly shows up for a cameo role as a club owner. There’s also Rosemarie DeWitt, who only has one speaking scene as Sebastian’s older sister. I love both of these actors and it pains me that they’re so underutilized, but I can’t see any way of giving them more screen time that wouldn’t have detracted from the central plot.
I’d also like to point out that I really wasn’t taken with Ryan Gosling’s singing voice. Granted, the character mostly sticks to piano (and either Gosling is a damn fine piano player or the filmmakers did a spectacular job of making him look like it), but his singing voice is pitifully subpar in those few moments when we hear it. Speaking of which, it’s terribly obvious that all of the singing is lip-synched from start to finish, but I think that adds to the heightened Hollywood musical feel that the filmmakers were going for.
La La Land is colossal. It’s uplifting, it’s funny, it’s romantic, and it’s dazzling. It’s beautifully acted, delightfully written, and solidly directed. The visuals are flawlessly constructed, and the soundtrack is phenomenal. The filmmakers show such unapologetic love for the old, such a deft touch for mixing the past with the present, delivering all of it with such unbridled energy and unreserved passion, that I couldn’t possibly care less if the story and themes were put together from old and tired parts. I can’t remember the last time I saw anything so unapologetic or infectious in its astronomical joy.
DO NOT MISS THIS MOVIE.