Becoming an avatar of what you love in La La Land

posterlaA text message kills a musical number. Did I forget to turn off my phone? Oh wait, no, this is La La Land, the modern musical from writer and director, Damien Chazelle. You’re invited to be the third wheel in a relationship between an aspiring actress, Mia (Emma Stone), and a jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), exploring The Lonely Planet’s guide to Los Angeles brought to life.

Mia and Sebastian are dreamers trying to make it in Hollywood with limiting career defining character traits: acting and jazz – that’s it. Not much else rounds out these two. Mia even asks Sebastian at dinner, “What are we?” It’s never a good sign when characters are questioning the motives of their relationship and existence beyond career aspirations in a film selling romance. Alas, they make a cute couple. Stone and Gosling are meant to be together on screen, there’s a sense of destiny in La La Land between the two, and third time proves to be the charm after being paired previously in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad.

In the same way Mia and Sebastian have defined artistic pursuits, so does Chazelle in his depiction of the divide between fantasy and reality; the two worlds these characters tap dance, waltz and jive between. The opening musical number has gridlocked commuters on a highway breaking into grand musical number, Another Day of Sun, one of only two songs I can recall from a middling songbook for a musical (City of Stars being the other). Chazelle has the camera swinging in, out and around of the immaculately choreographed sequence as if it has its dancing shoes on, too. As Chazelle pulls back for the final crescendo, the commuters pause for a moment, then hop into their cars and slam the doors shut. Chazelle rests the shot on the stretch of gridlocked traffic heading in the city. La La Land soars in these fantastical moments and Chazelle makes a point to have the real world crashing in at every opportunity. Mia attends a party that breaks out into another song and dance number but it’s cut-off with a smash cut to a street sign with the bad news that her car has been towed. Sebastian is told to play the Christmas hits at his lounge piano-playing gig but when he decides to play his own improvised number, he gets fired. The real world is relentless and it will continue to thrash onward in La La Land, but the magical flourishes of dreams provide a break in the grind.

Can Mia and Sebastian have it all? Chazelle has his wits about him, as showcased in the opening highway number, by acknowledging how the musicals can be delusional with the way characters perceive the world around them. The highway is a drag, and for a moment we see the optimism the commuters have for their city, but it’s still a dirty long highway when then dancing is done. Chazelle shows a self-awareness for his take on Hollywood, as a city and the hub of the entertainment industry; and he has plenty of jabs at modern show business. While Mia and Sebastian are walking around the Warner Brothers’ backlot, Mia points out the window where Casablanca was shot. It looks like an ordinary window on top of shop fronts but it was transformed into something wonderful by Hollywood. Mia and Sebastian hope to get the Casablanca window treatment themselves but it has to be on the terms of their career aspirations, uh oh, here comes another slice of reality, which is where the heartbreak of La La Land lies.

Mia and Sebastian are also resistant to anything new and they are shown as old souls trying to hold onto their integrity. Sebastian is trying to save jazz from dying; it’s ‘Dances with Jazz’. Mia’s bedroom is a tribute to old Hollywood and she admires a classy actress who drops by her day job as if she’s the second coming of Ingrid Bergman. A lot of La La Land is about staying true to aspirations and inspirations even when it may seem foolish. Chazelle is frustratingly stubborn with his adoration for the classics and how he fast tracks these characters to success while tearing out their hearts. To put it in the most modern terms: #reality. And it’s here where La La Land gets flimsy because these characters are only ever avatars for what they love. When Chazelle puts you in the trenches of their relationship as it begins to fray because careers come first; it’s striving for the emotional depth of characters that are empty; it coasts on the real charisma of Stone and Gosling as performers. But when Chazelle goes full throttle on the fantasy at the tail end of La La Land it’s just enough to provide a relief which seems to be how the film functions best, as a relief from the potholes of life as we envision the best versions of ourselves in snappy musical numbers.

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie