A beautiful, bittersweet, brilliant musical masterpiece. Like director Damien Chazelle’s previous film, “Whiplash”, “La La Land” is extremely well-constructed (Justin Hurwitz’ music is the star of the show, Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is gorgeous, Tom Cross’ editing is pitch-perfect, and so on), full of emotion, and a powerful, nuanced exploration of artistry, ambition, and the conflict between devotion to one’s art and to one’s relationships.
The film is full of homages to twentieth-century Hollywood musicals, but is far from overly derivative. The story, particularly the third act, feels painfully real, and not at all like joyous escapism. In the film itself, John Legend’s character criticises the way Ryan Gosling’s character’s wallows in nostalgia. He points out the inconsistency is Gosling’s character, Sebastian, being such an outspoken fan of jazz music – a genre built on improvisation, development, and new ideas – yet insisting on playing it so traditionally, and instinctively rejecting any musical ideas new to him. The movie itself faces a similar issue, in an intriguing meta way – does it rely too much on nostalgia for those musicals of decades long past?
The parallel is furthered by Emma Stone’s character, Mia, arguing with Sebastian about whether art needs an audience or not. Sebastian believes art just has to satisfy its creator, whereas Mia thinks audience appreciation is a key component to art. Damien Chazelle faced many issues in his years of trying to get the film made, including offers to fund the film but only if he removed and significantly altered many key aspects (the inclusion of jazz music, the bittersweet story beats, etc.). Ultimately, while the film does indeed contain many allusions, throwbacks, and homages, I believe it succeeds in becoming a transformative, original piece.
In his own words, Chazelle has said “This is, in many ways, a movie about movies, and a movie about the arts. So as a movie fan, as a music fan, as a fan of Los Angeles, as a fan of so many of these things, I felt permission to explicitly celebrate these things, to fill the screen to the brim with things I personally love. I guess that’s what made the movie feel really personal to me, even private. Sometimes it was like I was raiding my private stash of favourite LPs. That feels very personal. But at the same time, I was trying to find a way to combine those things in new ways, to update or synthesize them, or subvert them, to do something with them where they feel like they’re speaking a new language. Where they feel like they’re saying something new”.
Chazelle saying the movie felt not just personal, but actually private, to him rings true with me – it certainly felt like a very earnest labour of love. There’s so many deft and clever touches beyond the already very impressive surface. Sebastian makes the case for jazz as a type of language those without the ability to converse in words can use to still meaningfully communicate with each other, and in the glorious ending sequence, he does just that. Early on in the film, Sebastian makes a remark about how people talking over jazz music annoys him, then in a later scene, that very thing happens, and no particular attention is drawn to it. So many of the best parts of the film don’t drawn attention to themselves; the cinematography rarely felt overly show-y to me, it was often just quietly poetic and beautiful. Scenes where Sebastian and Emma are getting on well contain them both in the frame together, but scenes where they’re arguing use direct cuts between their faces to heighten their conflict and feelings of separation. The ending itself offers a painfully real, relatable, and very mature outlook on relationships and life goals. Nothing is cheap or underdeveloped in the movie. Everything is beautiful.
The film is stunning in its beauty, and a truly magical cinematic experience. But it also feels so grounded in reality, so real, so relatable. It’s an extraordinary work of art. I give it five iced coffees, and a keytar.