“It’s nostalgic,” Seb affirms about Mia’s play. “Do you think people are gonna like it?” asks Mia. “Fuck’em,” he answers. This short, meta dialogue winks at the audience as it reveals much about the film as a whole because, at its core, La La Land is an unapologetic work of nostalgia, beautifully paying tribute to Old Hollywood and the studio system.
Damien Chazelle – who also directed Whiplash – elaborates on his passion for music, now delivering a more complete film. La La Land is consistently thrilling and reinvigorates a musical genre that, for the past couple of years, has been relegated to period comedies and Broadway adaptations. Yet, La La Land promises to please film lovers of all sorts with its relatable characters, striking cinematography and bright, colorful aesthetic. The music plays its function well – it doesn’t feel overbearing, as is the case with some recent musical adaptations into film – and there’s enough dialogue to keep the movie going. The film’s original songs appear when it is necessary, elevating the themes and feelings of the characters in a charming way, all against the stunning backdrop of contemporary Los Angeles.
The plot plays it safe, telling the familiar story of two struggling artists trying to make it in Hollywood – because nothing else would be more fitting. Mia (Emma Stone) is an awkward aspiring actress scrambling for a breakthrough (or even just a callback) in Hollywood, and Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician caught up in an era in which his genre seems to be dying. They meet, they hate each other, they tap dance and they eventually fall in love. However, it seems they can’t have it all. It’s as if only one of them can be successful at a time while they’re together; they encourage each others’ artistic endeavors, yet it is their successes that begins to draw them apart.
Inevitably, the movie also explores some common issues faced in the entertainment industry, particularly the dilemma between choosing to sell out or to maintain artistic integrity while attempting to make ends meet in a city that is known for its ruthlessness, even toward its most talented residents. At times, the film’s dialogue is reflective, questioning its role as a feature-length musical in the contemporary age. In one scene Keith, played by John Legend, inquires as to Seb’s aspirations: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary, if you’re such a traditionalist?” It’s like the film’s protagonists, with their idealistic conceptions of what film, music and art are supposed to be, resonate more with the old-school, romantic ambitions of La La Land, rather than with the current landscape of noisy superhero blockbusters, formulaic romantic comedies, or even remakes of well-known musicals.
Full of heart, La La Land is about dreaming big, and the compromises we have to make to see those dreams come to fruition. The storyline is somewhat predictable, but the execution is flawless. It’s a generous nod to the past, yet mature enough to do away with some of Hollywood’s more idealized conventions by choosing to portray the harsh reality of its industry.