In La La Land, the musical genre is simultaneously presented with a vibrant contemporaneity and a celebratory nostalgia for classic Hollywood. Around this structure, the film espouses timeless themes of self-doubt, settling and compromise, and the drive to follow one’s dreams – especially in the context of artistry. There are two great performances at the core of the film, Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, multiple spectacular song-and-dance numbers, and a hyper-stylized aesthetic that blends reality and fantasy to perfection. Together, these elements make La La Land a wonderful marriage of plot, style, and theme, and one of the best films of the year (and best film musicals of recent memory).
La La Land is a passion project for writer/director Damien Chazelle, whose first feature was the astounding Whiplash. Chazelle actually wrote La La Land first but got soundly rejected for pitching the concept of an original musical infused with nostalgia and celebrating the Hollywood milieu. After the success of Whiplash, Chazelle had a little more artistic currency at his disposal, and to hear him tell the story, he spent all of it making La La Land. It will prove to be a fine investment.
The plot of La La Land is actually not too involved. Some of the best musicals ever have a fairly simple plot. This is your standard “follow your dreams in LA” kind of plot. Emma Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who wants to open his own, authentic jazz club. After a few aborted meet-cutes, the two fall in love and try to navigate their respective dreams while still making time for each other and their relationship. Along the way, compromise, self-doubt, and other struggles threaten to derail their dreams. This story is well-paced, though audiences already hesitant to embrace a musical could certainly struggle through a second act that can feel a little slow.
As characters, both Mia and Sebastian are enjoyable and sport fully-realized arcs. They have distinct senses of humor and a real warmth about them, both before and during their relationship with each other. They make a good couple, but their relationship never devolves into the saccharine sweetness that can happen in musicals (even Les Miserables is guilty of this in some ways). There is real conflict between them. This, coupled with their assorted artistic failures, generates the majority of the drama in the film, but also its greatest triumphs.
The musical aspects of La La Land are absolutely top-notch. The numbers themselves are fantastic, from a big song-and-dance opening that prepares the spectator for what they are about to see, all the way to a genius epilogue that will be discussed in detail later. Given the subject matter, most of the songs have a kind of jazzy verve to them, but those familiar with the genre will certainly recognize some of the more general musical trope songs as well. All told, this is a fantastic soundtrack. There are great themes (musical ones), more intimate and reserved pieces, and a showstopper or two as well. Do not be surprised if multiple songs find their way on stage at the Oscars, and if you’re the kind of person who likes arguing over the best song in Hamilton or The Phantom of the Opera, you better be prepared to die on your hill with La La Land – there are easily five “best songs” here (for those who care, my personal choice is “Audition”).
In a more general sense, it is worthwhile to discuss the overall style of the musical. Obviously, no one goes around breaking into song-and-dance numbers on the LA freeways, but employing such a hyper-stylized form of communication imparts a Romantic style in the film. This romanticized style is meant to showcase not the way things actually work, but an idealized form of how they should. This central concept is key to the understanding of the storytelling method of the musical: it does not seek to show characters talk as they would, but as they could. As a bonus, you get to borrow storytelling techniques from music and use them in your otherwise visual story. Done right, the result is the magical blend of the visual, auditory, and performance arts. La La Land epitomizes “done right”.
There are many examples of things that are done well in La La Land. For instance, the film uses music as characterization to perfection. The way that Mia participates in early songs is very reserved and non-committal, as if she is tired “playing the game”. Through the music, we get a clear indication that she is not really enjoying the way that the acting grind is playing out for her. She’s nearly fed up with disinterested casting directors, the idea that it isn’t “what you know” but “why you know”, and waiting for her “big shot”. We see Mia open up a little more musically when she begins her relationship with Sebastian, but this trend reaches an apex at the climax of the film, the aforementioned, “Audition”. Here, Stone unleashes her full pipes, and it is a gorgeous, full-hearted performance. Hence, Mia’s arc is not merely in the narrative, it is in the music.
Sebastian’s character and his struggles are similarly driven by the music. When we meet him, he is an aspiring jazz musician who simply can’t stop himself from deviating from the banal holiday set list when he sits down at the piano. His passion for music, and jazz in particular, is worn on his sleeve, and he has an electricity to his personality that is immediately attractive. As his story continues and he experiences other opportunities, we begin to feel his music stagnate (and Mia notices the same thing). The character is struggling with compromising his dream, and it is indicated through the music he is now playing and his reservation in playing it – even though people like it.
Obviously, it is possible to convey these struggles and characterization elements without the overall structure of the musical, but once you’ve got the audience tapping their toes and buying in after a raucous opening number, you can start sneaking in little devices and techniques like these. And due to the power of music to convey emotion, the triumphs and failures of the main characters are transferred to the spectators, almost automatically. Thus, complex thematic and narrative concepts can become purely based on perception (in this case, auditory perception).
Nowhere is this more clear than in the epilogue of the film, which essentially serves to sum-up the entirety the relationship between Mia and Sebastian, and ties together all the trials and triumphs they experienced together. The final piece is composed in the style of the medley, providing us a musical montage of the entire film, and samples from various pieces we’ve already heard. In this piece, Chazelle takes the Romanticism of his story and dials it up to 11. The entirety of La La Land is a gorgeous, stylized re-creation of dream-seeking in Los Angeles, but here Chazelle also romanticizes Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. He presents the events we’ve already witnessed with slight tweaks meant to idealize their experience. But, life is not idealized, and just because every single thing did not go perfectly doesn’t mean that the journey has been a failure. Still, we must see these ideals in art; it give us the blueprint, shows us what to shoot for. This epilogue is seven minutes of heaven, Romanticism epitomized in a perfect blend of music, visuals, style, and theme.
The accolades for La La Land have already started piling up, and is easy to see why. Chazelle has constructed a film which simultaneously celebrates artistry and romanticizes the glorious past of Hollywood and jazz music. The musical genre is perfectly suited for this, and La La Land takes full advantage throughout and is aided magnificently by the singing, dancing, and acting talents of its two leads. For better or worse, La La Land is the exact kind of film that performs well during awards season, and it is so meticulously crafted and romantic that it must be considered as having the inside track to this year’s best film.