From its opening scene under a big blue sky on a bumper-to-bumper L.A. highway stretching as far as the eye can see, in which drivers exit their vehicles to join in singing and dancing with a precision, energy and choreography that I haven’t seen since the Jets and the Sharks danced their way down the west side highway, the film La La Land, written, directed and produced by Damien Chazelle, transports us into a world of dreams and aspirations, both delightfully magical and often achingly familiar.
Set in a land known for dreams both fulfilled and quashed, this Hollywood setting, awash in primary colors, tells a story of two ordinary and young adults who each have talent and a dream. But this entertaining musical stands out because it defies our expectations of a classic “boy meets girl” story. In modern day real life, love and career often battle it out. La La Land confronts this head on, as the characters dance and sing their way through their lives in a delightful score by Justin Horwitz.
He, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz pianist, reveres the jazz greats and wants to open a club of his own someday, where the greats’ music can be heard and appreciated again. For now, his talent is squashed at the dinner clubs where he is hired to play the song set requred by the restaurant owner.
She, Mia (Emma Stone), the aspiring actress, captivates because she struggles as any human: She squints in the sunlight, struggles to put on a smile after being rebuked by an employer, doesn’t fix herself up for the audition, and then attempts to justify her humiliation (“That was fun!”) when she hears the words, “Next…” Mia contrasts to the typical prototypes of the aspiring actors she brushes by at the various social events she attends who “worship everything and value nothing.”
The two get off to a wobbly start, which Mia is able to do because she overlooks a number of Sebastian’s more obnoxious character traits and is willing to learn about his passion, jazz. The two inspire and encourage each other in their respective fields. A modern-day couple, they have no expectations of where this relationship will lead. At least that’s what each says or, rather, sings. But as the story and the romance continues, greased by some wonderful dance scenes, the audiences’ hopes that they’ll make it are raised.
I found their dance numbers charming. No, they are not polished like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but they are Mia and Sebastian. We may find ourselves rooting for them as a couple, and realize their professional dreams as well, but the past does not predict the present nor does the present portend the future, a dimension which Keith (John Legend) adds to this story. Keith, the leader of a jazz fusion band, shows up out of Sebastian’s past at just the right time with an offer for Sebastian to play in his band. This might be just what Sebastian needs to make his dream come true – if he is willing to let go of his reverence for pure jazz in order to tour, and then record, with the group. “You’re holding onto the past but jazz is about the future,” Keith advises.
But it means also having to tour for long periods of time, and leave Mia behind. Mia, we know, wants to further her career. loves acting, how much acting or writing talent does she actually have?
Sebastian encourages her to write her own one-woman play and to then produce it and act in it, which she does, but again we are not shown any part of the performance or even told what her play is about. It was unsatisfying to not see any part of her performance, we don’t even learn how much acting talent she actually has, but she has a dream. And perhaps Chazelle has a different storyline in mind.
At Mia’s next audition, she’s asked not to read lines from a script but to tell a story. She reaches within, to what she knows intimately and loves – and finally breaks free of her inhibitions. Her breakthrough comes as she extemporizes, to song, verses about her aunt, in the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” and where La La Land connects the strongest with the audience.
Leapt, without looking
And tumbled into the Seine
The water was freezing
She spent a month sneezing
But said she would do it again…
This song is, after all, notwithstanding our investment in this romance, the film’s anthem:
And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make
Up until this point, Mia and Sebastian have given advice to the other – but what about the decisions each makes for himself? In the quest for love and a career, which comes first? How do modern day couples negotiate that? Do we read lines, or create our own meaningful script? Can one flame burn out, only to find another that’s brighter? Or is it all about timing?
Movie-goers who want their storybook ending won’t find it here and, unlike the passion in West Side Story which plays itself out throughout the story, the heat produced in La La Land‘s opening-number does not resurface later in the story line. The best music is when Keith’s band performs; and some of the dance music, such as that with the harp and flute, while brilliant, is counter to a unified musical whole, and the most memorable lyric is during Mia’s audition number.
But movie-goers will love the performances of both Gosling and Stone; they’ll also find a truer arc of life and reality where hearts are broken and messes are made but one’s dreams – whether about profession or romance – should and do still come true.