Film review | La La Land: Pick the right dream

Although La La Land appears to be tonally opposed to the gritty and sometimes blood-soaked obsessive odyssey that is Whiplash, it shares thematic similarities with the former film in a way that is not entirely flattering • 3/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
24 January 2017, 7:50am
Tapping the night away: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are game leads in this award-courting musical drama from the director of Whiplash
Tapping the night away: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are game leads in this award-courting musical drama from the director of Whiplash
Director Damien Chazelle has some clear ideas about the art vs life divide. The fact that there should be a divide between the two phenomena is already a clear enough decision by the young and able filmmaker, who astounded us last year with the Oscar-winning jazz-drummer prodigy drama Whiplash. As that film explored with thrilling abandon, one can either be a great artist or lead an emotionally fulfilling and healthy life. You can’t have both. 

And although his subsequent feature, La La Land – which is also enjoying awards-attention, having swept the major Golden Globe Awards, for a start – appears to be tonally opposed to the gritty and sometimes blood-soaked obsessive odyssey that is Whiplash, it shares thematic similarities with the former film in a way that is not entirely flattering. 

The musical love story follows two characters on similar-but-different trajectories. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress currently working as a barista on a studio lot while, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist with a puritan streak for the art form reduced to playing in restaurants to make ends meet. Mia pines for stardom, Sebastian pines for the capital to set up his own jazz club – one which would serve as a fertile melting pot for bona fide jazz musicians to ply their trade and ensure the fledgling genre’s survival. 

A spot of road rage threatens to undermine the prospective couple’s meet-cute, but after the two get over that particular obstacle, they hit it off with gusto, discovering that they are kindred spirits pursuing fragile dreams in a cynical world. Frustrated by fruitless and often humiliating acting auditions, Mia is encouraged by Sebastian to stage (and self-finance) her own one-woman show. 

Technicolour dreams: Gosling, Stone
Technicolour dreams: Gosling, Stone
The surge of confidence gives the couple an equivalent uplift. But when opportunity comes knocking at Sebastian’s door with the promise of commercial success but middling artistic satisfaction, the realities of the arrangement threaten to undermine Mia and Sebastian’s bubble of romantic happiness.

Like Whiplash, La La Land is a tightly edited and choreographed film, and its musical interludes – most of them consisting of hardly inspired throwbacks to classics like Singin’ in the Rain – are woven into the proceedings in a deft way that certainly won’t grate with non-fans of the musical genre. 

But the film’s vibrant palette is always in evidence, and the bursts of technicolour never feel out of place, even when they’re sudden. This is because Chazelle makes a clear connection between the musical’s tendency towards reverie and the protagonists’ own wistful dreams. Singing and dancing – heightened with a dash of the fantastic – is the currency of dreams, and their inner life. 

The flip-side to all of this, of course, is that reality has to come knocking at some point. Chazelle’s idea to upend the fantasy by showing it as being just that is a good one for a film with such mainstream reach, but it still hinges on a bit of a cliché. As with Whiplash, the film operates on the assumption that it’s just about impossible to be both a successful artist and an emotionally fulfilled person. You have to pick one, apparently. The fact that Chazelle – who also wrote the screenplay to La La Land – treats this as a bona fide Truth hampers the film’s integrity somewhat. Even more so because truthful moments are otherwise apparent – most notably a dinnertable argument between the two leads that is raw and well-executed. 

A lively but mixed bag of formal interplay and some half-baked ideas, stewing in gorgeous cinematography and played by a couple of game lead actors.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...