Monday, December 26, 2016

The Lay of the La La Land

Damien Chazelle's La La Land is two different films. Its first half is a pure, safe homage to the grand Hollywood musicals of yesteryear (Singin' in the Rain, Hello, Dolly!). It' s a film you've seen before and if you liked that film, you won't be disappointed. Mia (the as-usual pitch-perfect Emma Stone - someone give her an Oscar already) moves to Hollywood with a dream to be an actress. A few (rather contrived) coincidences later, she connects to charming jazz musician Sebastian (a Ryan Gosling with solid comic timing), who hopes to open his own music club. They dance (in a literal and prolonged sense) into each other's hearts as they power forward to realize their aspirations. As mentioned, you've seen the first half of this film already and as such it plods. Its long takes are breathtaking at first but tend to wear on one's patience (how many wide shots of people dancing until it ceases to be a novelty? Not many).

Its second half is a different film entirely and likely worth the wait. The evolution of Mia and Sebastian's relationship waltzes from a string of song-and-dance numbers (it occasionally sticks a noncommittal toe into fanciful Moulin Rouge territory without Moulin Rouge's imagination) into an honest assessment of weighing one's dreams against love. The film's true pivot point (and likely its strongest scene) is a dinner at their apartment that presents in painful detail the fault lines in their romantic trajectory. For the first time in over an hour, these two stop being hopeful-actress and dreamy-jazz-musician stereotypes and become actual flesh-and-blood characters. And thankfully, the remainder of the film reinforces the two as complex people with deep psychologies. But an hour's a long time to wait to establish the characters as such in the narrative.

The emotional simmer erupts in a heartbreaking, effective (if long) final montage of what-ifs reminiscent of the parallel life storyline of Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors. Oddly enough, it also calls back to Ang Lee's Life of Pi in so much that it delves into the nature of not just the story we just experienced but the nature of storytelling in and of itself. Life of Pi asked us, "What story do you prefer?" but both narratives in La La Land strengthen the truth that both chasing a dream - and giving up on one - comes with costs.

Jazz and blues.
The film's songs (composed by Justin Hurwitz) are cleverly conceived, but City of Stars is its true breakout. A melancholy love letter to dreams and their dreamers, it'll play in your head long after the end credits roll. John Legend's Start a Fire is a show-stopping electronica take on jazz (written into the narrative to introduce a younger generation to the "dying" genre) that might make purists cringe but guaranteed it'll otherwise make your foot tap along with it. Gosling and Stone have genuine (if untrained) voices that indicate the actors' deep connection to why they sing what they sing.

There are some contrivances that challenge an audience's suspension of disbelief too much (Sebastian has an unexpected obligation and has to skip seeing Mia - so he can't text/call her ahead of time to let her know?) and a lot of the dialogue is devoid of subtext (i.e., lines are on-the-nose without any dimensionality to what is said versus what is meant). However, the film shines brightest in its moments of melancholy of which there are many. There's a thread of sadness and endings that runs throughout the piece and La La Land is at its best when said thread blossoms into character action.

Perhaps the film's first half may have done better to exhibit more internal conflict - how the entire lives of Mia and Sebastian might have been tugs-of-war between love and dreams and how their decisions on that front landed them squarely in each other's paths. In any event, there's probably something for everyone to like in La La Land although it may not be everything for everyone at every moment. Rather like dreams, themselves.


Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at

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