La La Land Review: A Brilliantly Directed Musical With A Passionate Message
I have never enjoyed musicals. In films where music was not the main draw, it always annoyed me when actors burst into song. And films that were mostly music deterred me even more. This was because the directors and writers never managed to make the transition between song and dialogue feel seamless. Musical numbers never felt necessary or entertaining. Either they presented a sloppily produced song, or delivered a decent beat that detracted from the story itself.
But given that the director of La La Land, Damien Chazelle, delivered Whiplash one of my favorite films of 2014, I decided to give his latest film a shot. And I was not disappointed, because La La Land is one of the best films of the year. It delivers masterfully directed musical numbers that feel legitimately attached to the rest of the film, while presenting a well written and acted story about a young couple with dreams.
From the minute La La Land starts, the film tells us that it is a musical, and it does so without apologizing or hesitating. The opening scene is over the top in every way you would expect: the actors in the background jump and sing in a setting that would never be possible in reality. It is here that La La Land briefly shows its greatest strengths: its ability to whisk the audience away to a surreal world, while also presenting an uncertain atmosphere that mirrors our own very closely.
Every musical scene in La La Land is over the top in the best possible way. Characters laugh, sing, and cry while dancing through the streets of Los Angeles. Yes, there are several times in which the scenes are blatantly fictional, but I could overlook that based on the sheer talent on display. Every musical scene is exceptionally well choreographed, so well that I almost pity Chazelle for the massive amount of takes each scene likely required.
As if the fantastic dance routines weren’t enough, each scene is one shot long. Instead of rapid editing, Chazelle allows his audience to view the film through a very personal lens. At times, it almost felt as if I was watching a play.
By establishing a world in which people sing and dance out of the gate, every song following the opening felt necessary and logical. Each time a character burst into song, I didn’t question it or reject it as I typically do, instead I welcomed it.
In contrast, many films will wait for several scenes to bring out the music, and La La Land shows why this does not work. If the audience is introduced into a world without song, whether it be as fictional as Middle Earth or as real as Los Angeles, it will feel jarring and illogical when characters begin to sing. Those who remember the abomination Garfield: The Movie, which came out in 2004, know that an already awful film is made even worse by its first musical number halfway through.
For those seeking a more recent example, look no further than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This film, which I personally enjoy, has the dwarves break into song twenty minutes into the movie, after already displaying scenes of death and tragedy. Although it happens sooner than in Garfield, it still feels out of place because the world we have been introduced to is one without singing dwarves who wash dishes.
But the technical and musical genius of La La Land is only half the story. Damien Chazelle also delivers a heartfelt story about an aspiring actress, Mia, played by Emma Stone, and a masterful pianist, Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling. Emma Stone’s character has been in Los Angeles for six years, attending auditions daily and striking out just as often.
Ryan Gosling’s character is an undoubtedly gifted musician who has been unable to find a steady job. And even when he does find steady work, he finds it unfulfilling.
Of the two, I found Sebastian the more interesting character, as his passion is more intellectual than emotional. He understands jazz so well that the uneducated listener annoys him, a sort of passion that I can easily relate to. Mia, as a character, is no less intelligent than her male counterpart, but her passion developed on a more personal level, which did not interest me as much. This in no way implies that the one character is clearly superior to the other: the two are equals, who both love and push each other.
The characters’ chemistry clearly comes from their passion, and it is their passion that drives them together, and at times pushes them apart.
But the film’s message on passions and dreams is not as clear cut as most Hollywood films. Damien Chazelle has stated that he understands both the passion and disappointment of the film industry, as he spent many of his early years in Los Angeles writing films he wanted to direct. Both characters understand that achieving their dreams may not be possible, and that, win or lose, they will make sacrifices in an attempt to achieve them.
This theme is presented as early as the first song, and the film does not shy away from the proposition that some people, despite their efforts and passion, never achieve their ambitions. Despite this, La La Land stares its audience down and tells them to run towards their dreams. This is a film for dreamers, for creative types, and for film lovers in general.
La La Land took a genre that was dead in the water and filled it with new life, and for that achievement alone it deserves a viewing. But the film is so much more than that: it is both surreal, and more realistic than so many films this year. It is a love letter and a wake-up call to anyone with passion, telling those of us with dreams to push onwards, no matter how foolish we may seem.