La La Land written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Black Label Media, Gilbert Films, Impostor Pictures, PG-13, 128 min)
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
Make Hollywood Great Again
We live in an era of nostalgia. The largest television phenomenon of 2016 focused on 1980s synths, hairstyles, and sci-fi horror. Beyond cultural nostalgia, we saw an election where a clear motivation at the polls focused on policies pushing America toward the past, toward a time where the nation was considered “great,” at least for a certain kind of American.
Trends ebb and flow. Beliefs move in and out of season as if they are fashion chic. While many rightly criticize much of the policies bringing fear to certain groups of people, it is interesting that we flock to the theater to consume a similar nostalgia. We even use the language of the past, nodding to the glory days of Hollywood long since passed.
At the heart of Damien Chazelle’s critically acclaimed musical, La La Land, a longing for what-once-was rests. Our protagonists, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), convey these convictions in different ways.
For Mia, a life of glitz and glamour orbits her psyche as a dream of her youth. As such, she works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot and can depict the famous scenes filmed throughout the complex. Hollywood emerges from the romance and prestige of the legends before her and she dreams of a day where she can pay forward the cost of a coffee in between shoots.
Sebastian, on the other hand, reminisces upon the virile and fresh modes of musical expression found in the early jazz masters. The music represents a social conversation, more than a business plan. Despite his prodigious gifts as a keyboardist/pianist, Sebastian refuses to sell out, even though a sweet gig with a pop-jazz band would provide the seed capital necessary to open the jazz club he’s always wanted.
A Story in Two Acts
Designed in two acts where act one builds up to the relationship between Mia and Sebastian and act two where Mia and Sebastian empower each other to pursue their dreams, even to the detriment of the relationship, La La Land provides an intriguing structure. Like the ascent and release of a roller coaster, La La Land leverages this relationship to explore the value of living in the past and what it means to build to a dream about the future. If a process doesn’t work, what might it meant to take the process into your own hands, DIY-style? If money is the kickstarter, does a temporary sacrifice of a dream empower the dream at a future date? And ultimately, what if a beautiful relationship is the detriment of the perfect dream?
An aesthetic journey shot with solid, primary colors throughout, the joy of the music, dance, and cinematography polishes some of the rough edges in the story and character development. While I’m somewhat miserly when it comes to narrative stakes, any wish-fulfillment aspects of story about pursuing the dreams of reestablishing the vitality of an industry feel like a necessary evil.
Ultimately, I understand why Damien Chazelle’s opus receives its acclaim. Plus, Hollywood loves getting nostalgic about Hollywood. And we as a society love to be nostalgic about anything. So, why not give three cheers for nostalgia and celebrate what’s good, rewarding, and encouraging about society. La La Land provides that. Recommended.
Verdict: 4 out of 5