I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals. That’s not to say that I dislike them (I love films such as The Lion King 1994), but it’s true that it’s the genre that I probably have seen the least of. And with such huge awards buzz coming from La La Land, I went into it initially feeling that I wouldn’t care for it as much as audiences and critics have. I was optimistic however, being a huge fan of Director Damien Chazelle’s last film Whiplash. It is therefore surprising how much I loved watching La La Land. Not only is it vibrant and bold in terms of its musical production sequences, its story is truly compelling, examining the struggles of achieving the Hollywood dream, as well as the development of a believable romance. With amazing performances, spectacular songs plus an interesting combination of comedy and drama, La La Land has heightened my interest in the musical genre, which highlights how powerful this film is.
The plot of the film harkens back to the classical Hollywood musical and is truly a love letter to films of the Golden Age of Hollywood, referencing films such as Casablanca (1942). Barista Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring Hollywood Actress, dreaming of a star studded lifestyle on the silver screen. However, she is struggling to breakthrough with multiple auditions not going her way. It is only after she meets Jazz Pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) that she realises the world can be her oyster, and that she should be able to live the dream that she wants, if she has the passion to do it. And that’s the key theme I believe found within La La Land, passion. Even from the very first musicals of Hollywood such as The Broadway Melody (1929), we see the struggle of an underdog trying to catch a big break in the entertainment industry. Yet it is the personal motivation and passion that is the key to making you known despite what anyone else may think. Through the development of Mia’s and Sebastian’s relationship, we begin to understand their love of each other, yet perhaps more importantly, their love of their respective arts.
Seeing as this is a musical, I feel that the first element of the film that I should discuss is the musical numbers. In short, they’re incredible. From the opening scene, we see a gorgeously shot and excellently performed large scale collaboration with pedestrians stuck in a traffic jam. Not only is this an electrifying opening that represents Chazelle’s beautiful directing capabilities, but also demonstrates the vibrancy of the musical productions. The bold and extravagant colours and performances really show that this is a return to a classical Hollywood style musical, which is to many a refreshing film in an action packed blockbuster dominated culture. There aren’t many of these large scale songs, yet the ones that we do get are truly special with catchy tunes and stunning cinematography. They’re not here just for show however, as through the lyrics and tones of the songs, we understand the spectacular lifestyle that Mia aspires to. Throughout the film there are also songs of a more intimate nature that take place between Mia and Sebastian, building an understanding of their characters as well as bringing the two closer together. For me the best musicals are the ones that can further the story through the music and lyrics of their songs. This is why La La Land’s music worked so well for me as the large performance type songs such as Someone in the Crowd represent the seemingly incredible lifestyle that Mia aspires to, whereas the song City of Stars demonstrates the attraction that Mia and Sebastian feel towards each other, a personal friendship that is true goal of life among the glamorous coating of Hollywood.
Speaking of Mia and Sebastian, I found myself enamoured by the acting of both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Stone not only has a beautiful singing voice, yet is able to convey a range of emotions through Mia. She is a sympathetic character, one which we hope to see succeed, yet she is not flawless. She occasionally loses faith in herself within the seemingly impossible challenge of becoming big in Hollywood, which not only demonstrates a more complex character that Stone has created, but also allows for a balance to occur between Mia and Sebastian. This is due to Gosling’s excellent performance that captures the love of Jazz that Sebastian has. At the beginning of the film, Sebastian is not in a good place, yet finds catharsis in Jazz as a way of escapism, a way of excitement and pleasure in a difficult world. Yet whilst his love of Jazz is admirable, it does come with a sense of an initial antisocial nature which makes him come across a little arrogant. However, his arrogance is respectful, as he values his ability to perform improvised jazz against his boss’s (J K Simmons) will. Not only does this show Sebastian’s love of Jazz, but it allows him to express this love to Mia through their friendship which brings with it encouragement to Mia to achieve her dreams. Whilst I believe that Stone has a slightly better singing voice than Gosling, it’s incredible to see the range of roles that Gosling can portray. Comparing Sebastian to The Driver in Drive (2011) proves Gosling’s talent as an actor. It was also a surprise to see John Legend in this film that plays Sebastian’s old acquaintance Keith, who has a crucial role in the narrative, bringing up the questions of the relevance of classical Jazz in the modern world, calling Sebastian a ‘traditionalist’. Not only was the actor’s on screen chemistry believable, but I also appreciated how their performances were not exaggerated and over the top despite being a Hollywood musical. The relatable situations that each of the characters find themselves in (especially Mia who dreams of a better life) made me sympathise with them, as well as gaining an interest of the history of Jazz which La La Land introduces to the audience.
I also admire the romantic elements of this film. It’s not a typical Hollywood romance that is perfect, as there are many challenges that Mia and Sebastian have to face which brings with it some interesting confrontations and dynamics in their relationship. Not only that, there are some genuinely funny and comedic moments that lighten the mood against some of the films more serious moments. Despite the fact that the large scale musical numbers are unbelievable and unrealistic, a suspension of disbelief is required when watching a musical in my opinion, so in those terms, the film succeeds. The combination of incredible music, comedy and some deeply dramatic elements make for more than just an entertaining experience, but a true cinematic achievement that has obviously made a significant impact on filmgoers worldwide.
Without spoiling anything, the negatives that people seem to have with the film concerns the ending. And to be honest, I do understand where they are coming from, especially as most of those people loved the film up to that point. However, for me, I loved the ending and the message that it portrayed about the goals and aspirations of the characters. This is no doubt the most divisive factor of the film, yet it worked for me, but just a warning that the ending may not be for everyone. It’s also quite an obvious point to make that if you hate musicals, this probably won’t turn your view around. Despite this, if you are like me who was quite neutral going into the film, I believe that La La Land may heighten your enjoyment of the genre.
With 7 Golden Globe wins and 11 BAFTA Nominations, La La Land is this year’s Oscar favourite and I can understand why. The film has been described as a love letter to Hollywood, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Going into the film with some caution, I was pleasantly surprised, with Chazelle solidifying himself as a Director to look out for in the future. Seamlessly blending multiple genres into the same picture, keeping a focus on its musical personality, La La Land has certainly become one of my favourite musicals, increasing my interest in the genre, and I enjoyed the film from beginning to end. Definitely check this one out.
I give La La Land 9 out of 10