Between Whiplash and La La Land, director Damien Chazelle reveals two sides to the same coin. In Whiplash, he showed us the raw, intense drive behind a skilled musician. La La Land, in contrast, is the mandatory hope and imagination every artist needs to succeed.
Yes, you need motivation, inspiration and a primal desperation to become the best, but you also need optimism, passion and a smile on your face to make it. Chazelle, Oscar nominated with his second feature, knows what it takes to be among the best and La La Land proves how reflective he remains after achieving such accolades. This is a bigger production on a broader canvas, but Chazelle is clearly comfortable. Some fleeting moments where he forgets to leave space to breathe can be forgiven, but the ambition and pure joy resonates loud and clear: Chazelle is one to watch for the future.
Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are dreaming of LA. She’s desperate to make it as an actor; jobbing as a barista part-time and frustrated at auditions full-time. He’s a pianist, obsessed with Jazz and drinking coffee opposite a legendary club that’s been converted into a samba/tapas restaurant. She’s keen to maintain her posture and move on after each rejection. His gigs consist of Christmas tunes at swanky restaurants and 80’s pop-covers at birthday parties. Neither have compromised just yet but they haven’t “made it” in tinsel town either. A few chance encounters throw them together, but they don’t take the hint until a night under the stars and a tap dancing escapade teases their adorable future. Their romance blossoms and they support each other’s hopes and dreams. But, in time, the LA lights lose their shine and we’re left wondering what will happen with Mia and Seb for the more down-to-earth future.
La La Land begins with an outstanding number as singers, dancers and musicians jump, leap and jive on a highway, inside and on top of, a traffic-jam of colourful cars. Set across a year, each season contains a vivid palette, with bold reds, yellows and greens brightening each shot in a manner Pedro Almodóvar would appreciate. The black and white company logo (for Lionsgate indie production house, Summit) expands to become a broad, technicolour palette. A similar neat trick began The Artist only four years ago and both films share a deep love of the history of Hollywood. They adore tradition and, as La La Land references Singin’ in the Rain or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, cock-sure gents and sweet, doe-eyed dames steal the show.
Unlike the silent Oscar-winner, La La Land is a colourful musical with sing-along melodies and tap dances that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would be proud of. Chazelle places the film firmly in the modern era, where mobile phones beep and pop music clarify its setting. But Sebastian is a traditionalist and, as his lover, Mia appreciates his taste. Their quirky life of gloss and glamour seems to purposefully criticise the modern world. Their nostalgia capitalises on the fashionable appreciation of “vintage” and “retro” paraphernalia, but they are unaware. Rather than true traditionalists, there’s a sense that Mia and Sebastian are merely modern-day hipsters, detaching themselves from the world and obsessing about a time they’ve never known. In that respect, we may feel a rush of adrenaline and be utterly entertained by their tale, but it is only skin deep with nothing more sincere to offer.
In fact, despite parties and friends, Mia and Sebastian seem to be quite lonely people. We only briefly see Mia’s fun-time friends, framed as actor go-getters desperate to attend a party, while Sebastian is a bit of a loner – unhappy with the one friend (John Legend) who has been successful. Indeed, would you want to be friends with them? He’s a cynical grouch and she’s fame-hungry. Think of Riff in West Side Story, or Toulouse Latrec in Moulin Rouge – even Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain. These friends are vital characters in musical love-stories, while Mia and Sebastian have no one to shake them out of their blissful ignorance beside the cruel world they rebel against.
Nevertheless, the energy and enthusiasm is difficult to shake. The final montage, in particular, is thoroughly impressive. You’re swept up in it all but it seems to justify an ending that suits every audience. It is simultaneously tragic and optimistic, depending on your interpretation. There was blood on the cymbal in Whiplash, while La La Land’s is squeaky clean. Life is a darker shade and, while La La Land will never be considered a failure, it doesn’t quite reach the perfectly-pitched heights of the musicals we never forget.
This was originally written for Culturefly in December 2016