La La Land (2016)

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****1/2

“Here’s to the one’s that dream”, Emma Stone’s Mia sings in her final audition. This one line is the essence of Damian Chazelle’s La La Land. In it, we see the aforementioned Mia, a barista on a movie lot, time and time again pursue her dream of becoming an actress through auditions that even the casting agents don’t want to be at. We follow Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, through various music ventures, from playing holiday tunes surrounded by uninterested diners to playing synth in an ultra-contemporary jazz band just so he can one day open his own jazz club. These are the dreams and La La Land is the story of pursuit.

The reality of this pursuit is tampered with, somewhat, by Chazelle who employs Justin Hurwitz’s wonderful score to elevate the mundanity of life to something ethereal. Whether it is making a party invitation the potential to super stardom or a walk to the car a possibility for budding romance, the light and playful colours employed are matched by the airy tunes and funny lyrics. Anyone who has ever been to Los Angeles will know that it has never looked better than when Mia and Sebastian are singing.

I believe it was Scott Tobias on Filmspotting who said that La La Land was a musical made for film. From the opening sequence of hope whilst commuters are stuck on one of the many Los Angeles freeways to Sebastian escorting Mia back to her car, invoking Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to the exquisite dream sequence at the end, the film employs tracking shots and long takes whilst moving through scenery. These scenes are pure joy and though Gosling and Stone aren’t the world’s best singers (Stone comfortably plays Gosling off a break though), they add unique touches to each moment that gives the film even more warmth. Gosling, in particular, is honing his comedic skills even further (I hope Chazelle wasn’t one of the directors Stone was referring to here).

For all the joy and fun this film has, it is still grounded in the very real notion that dreams require sacrifice. Chazelle could have taken an easy path to the finish, but he chose to take one of meaning, which elevates the film to something more than your ordinary musical. It has laughs, it has catchy tunes and it will have you singing “Here’s to the one’s that dream” when it’s all over.

PS: It has been well documented recently that Hollywood has a problem with diversity and lacking diverse voices. This is a criticism of the industry itself but a few critics have taken this as justification to relegate Chazelle’s view of jazz to the bench. Yes, jazz is heavily influenced by black culture and it would be wonderful to have more black voices making films but Chazelle can’t be expected to not make a film because he falls into the majority. Also, the argument that Sebastian, a white man, is saving jazz is best summed up by Scott Tobias (again): “He’s not trying to save jazz, he’s opening a fucking club.” Sebastian has an ideal of what he thinks jazz is but I don’t feel like John Legend’s character is shown as a sell-out. He has one of the deeper lines when discussing Sebastian’s hang-ups with old jazz (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”) and the photo shoot only portrays the photographer as a naff, not the band. It shows that Sebastian isn’t comfortable in that situation. It’s not his dream.

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