La La Land opens on a typical Los Angeles traffic jam. Typical, that is, until someone starts singing. In one long, unbroken virtuosic take, the movie establishes its tone, matching the escapist fantasy of the movie musical with the mundane reality of a freeway snarl. It then introduces its characters: Mia (Emma Stone), the aspiring actress, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), would-be Jazz club owner. The two meet, fall in love, and then encounter tension as their journeys towards making it in LA take them on separate journeys.
This is a film that essentially documents a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. It acknowledges that it is a place where dreams come true, but not for everyone. In between their dreamy musical sequences, the characters are confronted with a series of cold, unfeeling people that really couldn’t give a damn about their dreams. It is a place where even if you achieve your dream, it may have come at a severe price. The film plays with the tension between the perceived glamour of Hollywood and its far more simple reality. Things don’t usually work out the way they do in the movies. There is a perfect Hollywood version of our lives, but they can only exist in our imagination.
The result is a fizzy bit of Hollywood magic. It is weightless, but lovely. Its two hours fly by effortlessly, transporting the viewer to another time, another place; practically another dimension. It is set in the present, but its aesthetics are taken from the past. It is noticeably brighter, eschewing the muted palettes of modern Hollywood for the Technicolor joy of decades past. There is a lot of old Hollywood in there, but the film also seems to take it cue from French director Jacques Demy’s musicals. It grounds the escapism in the very human struggles of its characters. They are broke. They make compromises. They suffer all manner of disappointment that they cannot really just sing and dance away.
The movie’s sense of nostalgia is enchanting, but it may also be its biggest weakness. As much the film emotionally grounds a lot of its musical excess, it still often feels more like an exercise in form than anything else. There are points where it feels like the movie is meant to be admired, more than felt. One can break down the pastiche and spot the homages and marvel in one virtuosic musical sequence after the next. But in all that, the story and the characters don’t always feel vital. The triumphs and tragedies aren’t felt as strongly as they could be.
But again: lovely. The jazz-inflected music makes for interesting melodies. The lyrics feels shaky at points, with simplistic rhymes at times getting in the way of conveying deeper ideas, but it all works well enough. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone contribute much to the loveliness of everything. The two are radiant on screen, and the camera really knows it. They are clearly not the best singers, but it is the imperfections in their technique that give this film its humanity. The odd off note here and there gives the musical its texture, and contributes to the idea of their fantasies being untenable.
La La Land doesn’t quite achieve the heights of performance or emotion that its influences did, but that may be by design. This is a movie that resists its own excesses, even while partaking in them. The effect is remarkable and admirable, if not quite entirely moving. In spite of its grounding of its elements, the film is still at best a seductive piece of Hollywood escapism. It still resists giving itself over to the inherent tragedies of its story, preferring in the end to let the movie magic win. There is value in that, even if that doesn’t seem to entirely fit with the theme.
LA LA LAND OPENS IN LOCAL CINEMAS ON JANUARY 11 FROM PIONEER FILMS.