Film review: La La Land (Director: Damien Chazelle)
By Sascha Krieger
A fresh, a modern, a new take on a traditional genre. When one reads up un Damien Chazelle’s new film La La Land, these are descriptions that come up again and again and again. Even the director himself has voiced such sentiments. Yet, La La Land, Chazelle’s musical about a struggling actress and an idealistic jazz pianist who try to make it in Los Angeles, pursue their dreams, fail, fall in love, make compromises but never give up on what they came here for in the first place, is none of this. Instead, it turns out to be a glorious homage on the golden days of Hollywood musicals, unashamedly nostalgic and unapologetically old-fashioned. It celebrates Hollywood: its dreams and illusions, its ability to forget the world for a while, its darker side, too, the cruel anonymity, the disregard of the individual, the efficiency of money-making, the emptiness of stardom. It harks back to the magic of Gene Kelly and the honesty of Sunset Boulevard but it always keeps coming back to the albeit slight possibility that all this struggling, all the rejections, the enmity towards individual talent, theat all this might prove to be worth it. Because when all we have are our dreams, do we have a choice not to pursue them? And if we do, what are we left with?
La La Land opens with a long scene that has one purpose only: to impress. Hundreds of cars, stuck in traffic on an LA highway, a metaphor of course, for millions of stalled, unfulfilled dreams. A song begins, taken up by one driver after the other. They get out of their cars, dance on the road and their vehicles, filmed by a long unedited tracking shotr that elevates the scene before bringing it crashing back to the ground. The persistence of dreams, als encapsuled in a few minutes. Stuck in this traffic are Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). They will bump into each other repeatedly, take shots at each other, assure the other they’re not interested – and fall in love. Because they both share the same dream, a passion for an art – whether in acting or music – that is pure, true, hones. They’ll learn to compromise, they’ll give up but get back on the feet with their heads in the clouds again. Emma Stone is spectacular: she communicates more with her eyes, a slight, devastated twitching around their mouth, a despondent emptiness mingled with despair, than others can in a lifetime of words. Gosling, as exceptional as he is as an actor, has a harder time. His Sebastian is a little on the dry side, somewhat to closed up, his enthusiasm less believable. A slight unevenness that doesn’t really harm the film much though.
This is because La la Land is all about rhythm. It is not the relentless, brutal, breathless pulse of free jazz of Chazelle’s masterpiece Whiplash, but the soft, pleasant, dreamy flow of the classic musical song, uplifting, magic, harmless. Justin Hurwitz’s score and songs have their higher and lower moments, they can be atmospherically dense and magically light, but also bordering on the bland and forgettable. It doesn’t matter much. Chazelle’s light narrative touch, Linus Sandgren’s dance-like photography, full of dreamy pastel colours, unashamedly romantic tableaux and playful quotes from classics ranging from Singing in the Rain to Rebel without a Cause take the viewer along on a nostalgic ride in which reality repeatedly gives way to imagination, often signalled by a change in lighting, a spotlight pointed at the protagonist(s). It does so with a natural touch that says: Hey, are we sure dreams are less real, imagination less relevant than the everyday waking perception we call reality? The ending is particularly astonishing ans it avoids the temptation for a happy ever after close. Instead, it reaches a final climax in a virtuoso alternative story sequence that celebrates Hollywood’s ability to create alternative, better, ideal world that, if one believes strongly enough, might at lease paint reality a little more brightly. Not a bad thing in darkening times.