by Benjamín Harguindey (originally reviewed at the Venice Film Festival)
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) opened up the Venice Film Festival earlier this year to much acclaim, delivering a glamorous, old school send-up of the Golden Age Hollywood musical and Star-System romance. And it works beautifully. But the movie deals with a rarer, more mature subject matter than all the music and the dancing might at first suggest.
The film stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Sebastian and Mia, who to their credit have a couple of “meet uglies” before their decisive meet cute (ushered in no less by the ghosts of James Dean and Natalie Wood). They’re a wannabe jazz pianist and a wannabe actress, both stuck in dead-end jobs: he takes humiliating gigs, she works at Starbucks, but both ultimately dream of making it big in Tinseltown, and that mutual dream bonds them.
Essentially, La La Land tells a story about having to choose between folding out or going all in. This is the kind of problematic compromise that was dealt with in Chazelle’s previous movie, Whiplash (2014). La La Land basically expands on that one scene where Miles Teller uproots a cute, budding romance because it would (presumably) get in the way of professional excellence. In hindsight, we just reviewed a movie where the issues of happiness and honing one’s craft are presented and critically opposed.
Sebastian and Mia find in each other twin dreamers, obviously perfect for each other, but dreamers first and lovers second. And as such it is their character-driven duty to keep each other’s dreams in check – supporting each other in misery and success, lest they give up or settle for a different kind of dream. On this subject there’s a surprisingly mature ring to their conversations. They behave like real people, beset with real problems. There’re no fatal misunderstandings. No trusts are shaken. No contrived “darkest hour” three-quarters of the way through. Everything extends naturally from themselves and their relationship with each other.
Gosling and Stone can be great actors in the right part – Stone herself won the Volpi Cup at Venice for Best Actress – and here they’re essentially playing their Dreamy Golden Boy/Manic Pixie Girl personas. It works because they have such good chemistry together (this is the third movie to link them romantically). More importantly, they’re playing characters with a sense of pathos, burdened with conflict and emotions that seem to exceed the cute little plot the movie initially has prepared for them.
Here’s where the musical proves itself. The secret to a good musical, arguably, is that the songs should integrate themselves into the movie as characters expressing a crucial aspect of their psychology. Because he’s a musician and she’s an actress, the singing and the playing are usually woven in rather seamlessly; otherwise we get a hand-wave in the vein of magical realism (the movie begins with an L.A. traffic jam breaking into a cheery musical number that sets up perfectly the movie’s upbeat tone, and later has the love birds literally waltzing through the air). Whatever the case, it always feels apropos, heartfelt and a damn shame once they’re over. Kind of like the movie.
Chazelle is probably going to catch no inordinate amount flak for making certain decisions in the plot that seem somewhat forceful. They’re not as controversial as they’re a point of contention, something that will divide viewers between those who understand and those who refuse to understand. Whiplash had a similar effect in creating aversion and devotion. Regardless, Chazelle delivers a fine second movie and proves himself to be one of the most interesting young Hollywood directors to keep and eye out for.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).