La La Land

An old-fashioned musical for our troubled times

The big winner at the Golden Globes this week was La La Land. It was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, a young filmmaker whose only previous film was 2014’s Whiplash, which concerned a young drummer sacrificing everything to achieve his dream of greatness. La La Land pursues a similar theme, albeit with greater subtlety and ambiguity. It’s a film that can generate hours of discussion on the meaning of life, which is a wonderful attribute, though whether the answers it provides are always helpful is a matter for debate.

The central question in La La Land is whether love and relationships are more important than the pursuit of one’s vocational dreams.

La La Land is (or at least aspires to be) an old-fashioned romantic musical. It begins magnificently with a song and dance number on an L.A. freeway during a typical morning traffic jam. If it had kept up that kind of pace for the rest of the film, as Moulin Rouge did in 2001, it would have fit more neatly into the musical genre and might have been an even better film (or perhaps a worse film). But after the first half hour or so, La La Land becomes more of a romantic drama, with far fewer songs than a typical musical. The magic of the musical genre remains, however, thanks to the marvelous score and the frequent dreamlike sequences in Chazelle’s unique and original screenplay.

Emma Stone plays Mia, who works in a film-studio coffee shop but dreams of being an actress and spends most of her spare time auditioning. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a small-time jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club because he feels old-time jazz is vanishing. Mia and Sebastian meet at a low point in both of their careers and, of course, fall in love (no real spoiler there). The romance grows, but also falters, as Mia and Sebastian pursue their dreams, a pursuit which will have lots of ups and downs. I’ll say no more about the plot.

The central question in La La Land is whether love and relationships are more important than the pursuit of one’s vocational dreams. At least one film critic described La La Land as a typical “millennial” response to this question, minimizing commitments to relationships and advocating for the making of whatever sacrifices are necessary in the pursuit of success (as in Whiplash). While it’s possible to read this response into the film and dismiss the attempts at ambivalence, I disagree with this critic. Especially in its brilliant final minutes, La La Land goes out of its way to suggest that the answer to that central question is far from straightforward. Indeed, one of the film’s greatest strengths is that it offers an imaginative, multilayered response to the question of the meaning of life.

I’ve always admired Stone’s acting ability, and her performance here is one of the best of the decade, well deserving of the Golden Globe she received, and of an Academy Award. Gosling also received a Golden Globe, but his acting was not as impressive to me (though the unmistakable chemistry between him and Stone made up for that). The singing of Stone and Gosling was, however, one of my disappointments. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but it seemed obvious to me that Stone and Gosling had very limited singing experience before the making of La La Land. For a musical, that strikes me as a dangerous choice to make. But Chazelle pulled it off thanks to that great acting and chemistry.

As for the quality of the music itself (both the songs and the score), written by Justin Hurwitz, it exceeded my expectations and was a joy from start to finish, with one memorable tune after another. And the gorgeous cinematography, which was full of vibrant colors, was nothing short of perfection. I could also find no flaw in Chazelle’s direction and found his screenplay consistently compelling and intelligent (and often quite moving).

At a time in history, and in filmmaking, when darkness seems to prevail, La La Land offers a beautiful ray of light and hope by taking us back to an almost-forgotten, joyous film genre: the romantic musical. Like Sebastian’s old-time jazz, we must do what we can to protect this magical genre from vanishing entirely. With its vital themes of love and dreams, La La Land should be especially meaningful for young adults trying to find their way in the world, but I think the film may actually appeal more to my generation. I recommend it to everyone—watch it on the big screen!

La La Land is rated PG-13 for some language.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.