Damien Chazelle has two major directing credits to his name, Whiplash (an infinitely brilliant film) and La La Land. Chances are, you’ve heard of the latter, and for good reason. La La Land has garnered record-tying Academy Awards nominations and almost universal critical acclaim.
I too, like so many others, am completely infatuated by this film, and consider this your official SPOILER ALERT! I do discuss the ending in great detail, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know how it ends!
In the spirit of full disclosure, I love musicals, especially 1950’s golden age of cinema-esque musicals, which in one way, is precisely what La La Land is. Led by the faultless talents of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the film is deeply nostalgic for the era of Metro Goldwyn-Myer mass-produced musicals, and all of the escapism and innocent joy that they entail. This film is song and dance in literal technicolour, with every character, however minor, donning a solid bright colour as they dance their way through the Los Angeles sun. It’s set in jazz clubs and on film lots and uses a beautiful purple sky as the backdrop. From tap-dancing to dream sequences, La La Land is indicative of musicals past, with Singin’ In The Rain immediately springing to mind.
But to simplify it down to an aesthetically-pleasing musical is to neglect its mind-boggling depth. Alongside being a stunning visual spectacle, La La Land is often funny, often emotive, and always deeply clever. It delivers an insightful analysis of the nature of fame and show business, leaving open-ended questions about what one must sacrifice to succeed in such an industry. Moreover, it questions the city, which despite it’s stunning visual portrayal, is much darker and less colourful. Chazelle’s assessment of Los Angeles concludes that though it advertises dreams and opportunities, it’s a city that churns out a series of social-climbers and sell-outs that give up their principles in pursuit of stardom. This analysis is never clearer than when Gosling’s character Sebastian tells Stone’s Mia, “That’s LA for you. They worship everything and value nothing.”
But if there were a point in the plot with which audiences might take issue, it’s the ending. Mia and Sebastian (Stone and Gosling respectively) don’t live happily ever after as the conventions of the genre would have them, but instead, they encounter what so many ambitious real-life couples do; a love not quite strong enough to keep them together as their paths diverge. The final 15 minutes of the film details a fantasy existence of the pair staying together, achieving their dreams and even having a child. For a second, you might even believe that is the ending. But backed by Justin Hurwitz’s tear-provoking underscore, we see that even though Mia and Sebastian clearly still love each other, their dreams outgrew their relationship. This fantasy montage shows that the film’s lead characters have become content with their separate lives, whilst still recognising the influence they’ve had on each other. It’s easy to dislike the fact they don’t end up together, but it’s even easier to see why it’s so important that they don’t. Life isn’t like that sometimes, and Chazelle abruptly ends his whimsical, musical exploration with a harsh dose of reality.
But that’s where La La Land really stands out. Had they ended up together, it would have been a good film. The fact they didn’t makes it a great film.
La La Land’s pretty exterior and toe-tapping musical numbers make it easy to disregard as just another thoughtless, albeit well executed, musical love story. But it punctuates its flights of fantasy with hefty doses of truth and reality, if you bother to look hard enough. For all its emphasis on dreams, the film sells a reality, which makes it the masterpiece that it is.
This review was written for the University of Tasmania’s student magazine, Togatus and was published in the first print edition of 2017.