Whenever you walk into a musical, there is a certain aura of disbelief that must be immediately dispelled. You have to accept that, during this story, there will be moments where all the characters get up to randomly start singing and dancing, no matter where they are or what they are doing, and no one in the world of that story will find it the slightest bit weird. We all know that is what musicals are like, and we accept that. La La Land is no exception, as it is happy to prove that in the first ten minutes where everyone in a Los Angles traffic jam will get out of their cars and burst into song and dance on the highway. In this way, it is a musical like any other, and it is doing its best to prove to us that it is a musical that can dance with the best of them. La La Land aims to return to the golden age of cinema and musicals, combining the new age of cinema with the old style of Hollywood, wanting to be Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and still something new. It is a lofty goal, and one that they may have overshot with – for all their high hopes and dreams, La La Land may not have been as worthy of all its awards as you would think it to be.
La La Land tells the story of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who serves coffee on studio lots in between auditions, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a passionate jazz pianist barely making a living by playing at piano bars and garden parties. The two bond over their shared experiences and dreams in a city where any dream is likely to be destroyed and it’s hard to get where you want to be without heartbreak. As their success beings to grow, the two are faced with the reality that fame means making hard choices and that if you want to follow your dreams, you have to decide what you are willing to adapt to and what you are willing to sacrifice.
Because of the story and the way of old Hollywood cinema, La La Land relies very heavily on its two main leads – so heavily in fact that most other characters don’t even get names, at least not ones you’ll remember later. So a great deal of responsibility for the enjoyment of the film falls upon the shoulder of Stone and Gosling. Were they up to the task? In some ways, maybe. You can tell that they put a lot of work into this movie – Gosling in particular learned to play the piano for his part, so whenever you see his hands on the keys you will not be pulled away by inconsistencies with the sound – but neither are particularly good singers or dancers. Stone especially sounds as though she’s singing outside of her natural key (she sounded better singing “Pocketful of Sunshine” in Easy A (2010) than she did here, even with six years to practice), which really makes listening to the music itself less enjoyable than it could have been if she’d sung in her own key. Not being the greatest singers and dancers might have worked in the story’s favor – after all, these two are struggling with the industry, maybe they’re just not that good. I certainly wouldn’t have hired Mia after some of her auditions, even though she is the protagonist and technically we should want her to get hired eventually. But between the less than fantastic abilities presented to us and the ever-shifting personalities of the characters, it’s hard to really like either of them. Sebastian started out as such a jerk that his transformation by the end of the film didn’t seem justified (even though he got funnier), and Mia ditched her “boyfriend” without any real reason or motive, which made her entire conflict with Sebastian later seem halfhearted. Maybe not being great was good for the story, but it didn’t help the portrayal of the characters at all.
A big part of what La La Land wanted to accomplish was a throwback to old Hollywood-style films, and they have managed to create that kind of atmosphere, even though the film is set in present day. The colors are bright and solid, the camera work is fluid and leading with long cuts, and even the actual film used is the same as what older films used to be made with. They even dive into the fantastical sequences that were rampant in older films, with the planetarium and the stars and fake sets that Stone and Gosling danced through like they were just any other stage. This adds to the dreamy sequence and even the story of the film about dreams and how to reach them. For anyone not a fan of those old-time musicals, however, these details may not register, maybe even seem irritating or out of place. Stone, for example, kept wearing costumes that were very much classic Hollywood, to the point where the audience couldn’t figure out if it was supposed to be modern day or actually back in the 50s and 60s. Between the classic cars and costumes, even the naive and old-time attitudes of the characters (particularly Mia, who was surprisingly against the idea of networking, even though that is the heart of the business she wanted to go into), sometimes you wondered if the film was just an homage to the 50s or if it really wanted to be in the 50s again.
For everything that La La Land does to be a musical like Singin’ in the Rain or The Music Man (1962), there is one thing that definitely sets it apart from the golden age, happy ending musicals, and that is its ending. It’s not an unhappy ending, but it is not a happy ending either. It is perhaps the most realistic moment of the entire film, and that is what works for it. It does go back and walk you through the happy ending, the way things worked out that you probably wished for, but La La Land was not a story about what happens when everything goes the way you want it to. It’s about your dreams, how you adapt to them, how you reach for them, and what you are willing to change or sacrifice to get to them. If the movie had ended in the usual storybook style with everything going the characters’ way, it would have done everyone watching it a disservice.
Here’s to the fools who dream in song and dramatic dance montages.