To begin, a confession: like many true freshmen, I pride myself on my contrarianism. There’s some nebulous, faux-superior quality to a fleshed-out opinion that goes against the grain, especially when it regards a popular work of fiction. By the time I came around to viewing La La Land, I had already been exposed to both the effusive hailing of the film as an unabashed triumph and the inevitable internet backlash that accompanies such praise. Knowing my contrarian tendencies, I fully expected to fall in the camp of immovable cynics unswayed by the so-called “power” of song-and-dance routines. Little did I know that I could be swept up by the sheer artistry of the whole endeavor to such a degree that I would unequivocally declare La La Land a “modern masterpiece.”
The film follows the romantic arc of aspiring actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz traditionalist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), as they navigate the unforgiving of show-business. This seemingly trite premise, however, belies a masterful blend of the contemporary romantic drama with elements of a fully functional “Old Hollywood”-esque musical. Just as in his previous feature, the phenomenal Whiplash (2013), director Damian Chazelle demonstrates his uncanny ability to utilize music in an organic, character-driven manner that brings the already engaging proceedings to an entirely new level. What’s more, the choice of leading duo Stone and Gosling (meant to evoke classic on-screen couples like Gable-Kelly and Bogart-Bergman) in lieu of less recognizable figures pays off in spades- the two enmesh themselves so thoroughly in their respective roles that it becomes impossible to mentally disentangle the actor from the part.
Even the most severe of detractors would find it difficult to dispute La La Land’s utter technical mastery. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren seem to have plotted out each frame with a painter’s touch. As such, the film’s shot positioning feels precisely in tune with the emotional character of every scene- both the tense close-ups and distant long-shots are striking in how deliberate they appear. When the camera moves, it does so in an entirely controlled, vaguely dreamlike fashion that demonstrates Chazelle’s firm grip on his precise vision for this world. Take one particularly stunning sequence: seeking reprieve from an underwhelming Hollywood party (read: “networking opportunity”), Mia delivers a somber solo into a dimly lit bathroom mirror. To the tune of a measured wind bridge, the camera smoothly tracks Mia’s trek through a mass of couples dancing in sensual slow-motion. As she approaches the unoccupied pool at the center of the festivities, the music comes to a halt. Like a man possessed, the camera suddenly floats upward and takes an Olympic dive, rapidly spinning to catch the entire crowd dancing to an ebullient chorus. Who needs drugs when such ecstasy can be captured on film?
Tautological though it may be, movies of this genre live and die by the quality and memorability of their music. On that front, up-and-coming composer Justin Hurwitz delivers- his almost dreamlike score is crucial to the lucid conception of this wondrous version of Los Angeles. The outright musical numbers, while relatively limited in quantity, are about as well-executed as one would think possible. The celebratory, technically stunning opener “Another Day of Sun” is an impassioned ode to those dedicated to chasing the spotlight. “A Lovely Night”, a playfully anti-romantic tap ditty, enmeshes itself in musical tropes before deftly subverting them one-by-one. Stone’s breathtaking single-take performance of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” propels the finale’s emotional core. Even the instrumental sequences (a jaw-dropping visit to the Griffith Observatory and the heart-wrenching, seven-minute epilogue come to mind) are pulled off with such visual flair that they remain wordlessly, iconically distinctive.
Some detractors have noted the film’s apparently awkward distribution of these musical numbers. The opening act inundates the viewer with memorable musical moments, but then the pace seems to taper off. For a sizeable chunk of the action, ravenous viewers are tossed but one (show-stopping and likely Best Original Song winning) bone in the form of “City of Stars”, a stripped-down in-camera duet that rests at the romantic arc’s peak. However, I subscribe to the belief that Chazelle and his team deliberately structured the film in this manner as part of a larger thematic exercise. Where early portions channel the lofty glitz and glamour of the musicals of old, the second act is entirely rooted in contemporary approaches to romance. As modernity creeps in, bearing its characteristically uncertain melancholy, it becomes less appropriate to express complex emotions through jovial song. Chazelle refuses to cheapen the modern maturity of the film’s dramatic elements by consistently hearkening back to the fantastical sung-through musicals of yesteryear. What he presents instead is a breathtaking hybrid; a statement that both 1950’s cheer and 21st-century gloom are necessary parts of a well-rounded whole.
Admittedly, it can certainly be argued that the film’s plot, while engaging and sometime surprising, is somewhat less-than-revolutionary. Chazelle is fully conscious of his heavy reliance on genre tropes- one character even describes an early sequence as “every single Hollywood cliché packed into one room.” The film understands that most viewers bear expectations when it comes to “boy-meets-girl” plotlines- its brilliance lies in the delicate balance it strikes between fulfilling them (the meet-cute), and undermining them (“A Lovely Night”, “Epilogue”). But whenever the film makes the decision to satisfy or subvert, it does so with complete mastery of the form. La La Land lacks pretensions of complete originality, opting instead to wear its inspirations on its sleeve while somehow synthesizing disparate elements in total harmony.
It’s La La Land’s intellect, its unabashed desire to transcend a banal premise, that sets it apart from the competition. In other words, it strives to be more than an exercise in song for the sake of song a la High School Musical. With the aid of Chazelle’s snappy dialogue, the leads develop into sympathetic, nuanced figures that stretch well past the boundaries of their archetypes. Mia’s desire to model herself after her belated, beloved, performer aunt gives her struggle meaning beyond a vain grasping at the spotlight. Sebastian’s cynicism is less borne out of an elitist love for jazz than a sincere desire to preserve an art form he perceives as crumbling. It’s this common striving that serves as the foundation on which a believable relationship is formed- the two function as a reciprocal loop of motivation all too necessary to thrive within a demoralizing industry.
Despite its often fantastical nature, La La Land is undeniably a timely work. The film burst into a Western cultural zeitgeist so inundated with futile gestures toward a “better” past that it often neglects the development of novel works. For better or worse, The Walt Disney Corporation will be providing moviegoers with the opportunity to attend a Star Wars film every year until the heat death of the universe. Motivated by an intense yearning for a mythical, bygone era they recall only through the rosy eyes of childhood (if they do at all), a mass of American voters recently elected a buffoon with authoritarian tendencies and an intense distaste for democratic institutions. In response to this snowballing trend, Chazelle demonstrates a non-binary form of nostalgia– one that distills the necessary tone and feeling from triumphs of old without feeling beholden to trite mimicry. In its complex musical sequences and soaring moments of joy, La La Land captures the essence of what caused the classics to be imprinted into the cultural consciousness. But the film makes the deliberate choice to lurch toward the future through its technical inventiveness and a hearty dose of modern melancholy. In this way, Chazelle demonstrates that nostalgia can serve as a motivating force to create something that surpasses a mere carbon copy of what came before.
Effusive praise aside, is La La Land unequivocally the greatest film of the year? It’s certainly not flawless– a short subplot involving John Legend is executed less-than-perfectly. Plus, 2016 provides legitimate competition in the form of Moonlight, Arrival, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Manchester by the Sea, all of which would dominate in weaker years. Though its Hollywood-phillic subject matter will leave an indelible mark on the denizens of L.A., the true test of greatness is best left to history. In other words, will future generations be yearning for the days of La La Land? Only time will tell, but I can venture a guess…