La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
3 out of 4 stars
Damien Chazelle is a clear frontrunner for the current awards season, and his sophomore feature length motion picture La La Land is an exceptionally effective Hollywood musical throwback. Brimming with bright lights, big dreams, and starring two of the greatest young talents working today, Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated drama Whiplash is a definitive crowd pleaser. Centering around the aspirations of two young artists in Los Angeles – one an aspiring starlet of the sliver screen, and the other a struggling jazz musician forced to play Christmas carols in a local tapas bar – La La Land blends childish daydream into a potpourri of waking despair offset by a number of willfully romantic musical compositions. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone manage to walk the high wire act of making a contemporary Hollywood musical that finds its way into the current pantheon of mainstream cinema. And despite its obvious self-indulgence, La La Land is a modest hit that might pave the way for even greater original musical movie productions in the near future.
Throughout Chazelle’s latest feature length endeavor, the director’s penchant for exploring the unwieldy capacities of jazz, both in terms of composition and performance, lends to a multitude of conflicting emotions and thematic idiosyncrasies that simultaneously vie for the viewer’s attention. As Sebastian Wilder, Gosling exudes a temperamental prickliness that erupts in spare moments of antagonism. Thankfully, Stone as Mia Dolan, aided by her character’s respective abundance of blind optimism, breaks through to the core of the movie’s overarching creative rebellion. Like the classic Hollywood drama Rebel Without a Cause that serves as an archetypal frame of reference for the two young lovers whirlwind affair, Sebastian and Mia seek artistic fulfillment in La La Land despite the odds, and emerge victorious by the grace of their respective talents alone. Los Angeles is a “City of Stars” in Sebastian and Mia’s eyes, even if the brightness of subjective ambition proves to bright for the dueling protagonists to see one another clearly and often enough.
Prior to La La Land, Whiplash saw Chazelle exploring the depths to which artists might lose themselves in the pursuit of technical mastery. In that film, Miles Teller plays the young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman as a monomaniacal sycophant to his own historical idols. Like Sebastian and Mia, Andrew shrugs off the affections of his father, extended family, and girlfriend for the cold embrace of his disciplinarian instructor. La La Land offers a few of the same bitter returns for its heroes, as Sebastian and Mia are forced to fall out of love with one another in order to reach the dazzling heights of celebrity and sub-cultural renown. Creativity is a double-edged sword in Chazelle’s hands, as its finely pointed aim consistently reaches its mark while obliterating all ancillary pleasures and desires in its single-minded pursuit.
La La Land may not offer the same kind of heartwarming narrative of the classic studio musical, but in our current day and age its cynical view of human nature feels more accurate in describing the guarded sympathies of 21st century Hollywood. Movies like Singin’ in the Rain and The Bandwagon from the 1950s allowed its heroes to fall and stay in love because they were made a by a culture that still strove to believe in the virtues of ethically binding monogamy. Over fifty years later, those same beliefs have become mere reminders of a retrospectively quaint philosophy, and monogamy a social stricture dictated by objective law alone. Sebastian and Mia are narcissistic performers dressed up like 1950s Hollywood musical players whose inability to find a happy ending together is the only logical conclusion that a movie like La La Land could reach in 2016. There is a lot of pain behind Gosling and Stone’s eyes in La La Land, but not much hope for a better future than the one they’ve blindly built in their own image.