All I want for Christmas is a one-way ticket to La La Land.
Taking more than a few cues from the musicals of the 1930s, Damien Chazelle has created a wholly unique and altogether mesmerizing experience with La La Land, a Los Angeles-set romance that champions those who dare to dream. The film stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone—a pair already well-versed in big screen romance—as two strangers drawn together by a mutual desire to do what they love. They each find the support they have always needed in one another, but as they begin to find success in their individual careers the connection between them is put to the ultimate test.
Chazelle welcomes us to the colorful world of La La Land with an opening number that takes places on a crowded highway. The joyful chorus of Los Angeles’ diverse community ushers you into a state of suspended belief where anything feels possible. Chazelle pieces together an idyllic meet-cute scenario that fulfills the requirements of every silver screen love story, then flips the script entirely by asking if love is all you need to be the person you have longed to become. Is it worth not fulfilling that dream if it means you can continue having love in your life?
Though the film is billed as a musical, the amount of actual singing that takes place is fairly minimal. Most musical cues set up elaborate dance and/or dream sequences, which further emphasize the retro-Hollywood roots of the feature. Neither Stone nor Gosling are singers by trade, but their lack of formal training actually works to their benefit in the context of the story. Their characters are dreamers who share a deep love of the arts, but loving something doesn’t automatically make you proficient at it. The vulnerability found in their performances mirrors the feelings experienced when chasing after a personal goal and greatly helps to forge a believable bond with the audience amidst a somewhat surreal situation.
La La Land finds a pitch perfect balance between the limitless possibilities of musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age with the often uncomfortable truth of reality. For every moment that feels too good to be true there is another, equally important moment that reminds you no one has it easy. Stone’s character, Mia, spends many months taking acting auditions in between shifts at her coffee shop in hopes of making her way to the cinema. Her relationship with Sebastian (Gosling) helps her stay motivated, but motivation alone is not enough to get her a starring role. Sebastian, on the other hand, finds plenty of work as a musician; the only problem is that his paying gigs rarely involve the kind of freeform jazz that inspires him to play.
Chazelle’s films do not exist in a shared universe, but it doesn’t take a film scholar to recognize the thematic and narrative similarities between La La Land and 2014’s Whiplash. Both films revolve around characters who represent hopeless romantics thrust into the harsh light of reality. The music and art they love is no longer the kind of creativity that drives sales or celebrity, and as such their passion is seen by many as being tied to a bygone era that will never return. Still, Chazelle’s characters fight through the resistance the world puts in their way in pursuit of the reality they wish to create for themselves. Victory is always won, but it comes with a substantial cost.
I imagine there will be some who view La La Land in the same light as the 2011 film The Artist. Both films are awash with romanticized nostalgia for a period in cinematic history that is no more, but unlike Michael Hazanavicius’ Oscar-winning film, La La Land makes a clear effort to modernize the era it is attempting to glorify. While I doubt Chazelle is going to be remembered as the man who pioneered the second coming of big screen musicals, I do feel he will be championed for his efforts to show us something we’ve never seen in a way that feels both urgent and timeless.
The world is a crazy place right now, and most of that is due to horrible or potentially horrible things filling our news and timelines on a daily basis. Finding a place where you can fully escape the worries of the world—even for an hour—is next to impossible in the digital age, but La La Land is an oasis everyone can enjoy. Here there is pain, as well as heartache, but there is also a lot of beauty, and sometimes that is all you need to be reminded of how wonderful life really is.