AT YET ANOTHER one of her many auditions (where she’s usually ignored, interrupted or just dismissed), aspiring actor and playwright Mia (Emma Stone) is asked to “tell us a story”. So, because it’s that type of movie, she sings. She sings a story of her aunt, her inspiration, who dared to jump into the Seine, because she just wanted to. “Here’s to the ones who dream”, she sings. “…foolish as they may seem. Here’s to two hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make”
The song neatly summarizes the idea that drives this compellingly charming movie. La la land, or LA, or the city of stars, is where the action takes place. But la la land refers not to the silly escapism of people who dare to follow their dream, but to the cynical put down by people too scared to follow theirs. Perhaps at a meta dimension, it also refers to the fantasy of a director who dared produce a movie – a musical of all things – that contained both the romantic joy of singing dancing Hollywood, but also the realism that followed dreams don’t necessarily lead where you’d planned.
The story itself follows the fortunes of Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She’s the wannabe actor waiting, like her friends to be discovered; he’s a brilliant, if undiscovered, Jazz pianist. In the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals, they keep bumping into each other. “This could never be” he sings, “You’re not the type for me”. “What a waste of a lovely night”, she concludes. But with each serendipitous bump, antipathy turns into friendship and friendship turns into love. They each provide the motivation the other lacks (so it goes with love), until, one day, motivation is needed no more.
The very idea of “follow your dreams; never give in to the average, the everyday, the easy payday” is of course a tired cliché. But director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) manages the enormously difficult balance between the potential silliness of the idea and the pure magic that makes us believe; that seduces us into a la la land of fantasy, established from the get-go with an over the top dance routine right out of “Fame”…when an entire highway of drivers stuck in traffic sing about “reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights that shine”. But the silly fantasy (is it silly to dream? To reach for the stars?) is all grounded in the same kind of honesty of vision and integrity of storytelling Chazelle delivered in “Whiplash”. This mix of fantasy grounded in the real world is nicely underscored (via Justin Hurwitz’ lovely book and Mandy Moore’s choreography) through the real, and clearly unprofessional, singing and dancing of its two stars. His voice (like his acting) is pretty dull; hers is clear and glorious.
Indeed, this is Emma Stone’s movie. Chazelle is wise (and trusting) enough to allow his camera to linger on her. Through her eyes, through the subtlest of expressions, Emma, without words, manages to communicate vast depths of complex emotions. Her character morphs from the ditzy Hollywood hopeful in awe of ‘movie stars’ to a knowing sophisticate, well experienced in the ways of love. She it is who, singlehandedly, neutralizes any trace of cliché; and who (unfortunately) diminishes Ryan Gosling’s character to that of a simplistic, if pretty, one-trick pony. Gosling has a nice sense of comic timing, but too often, there’s no “there” there. He seems to spend more time trying to look cool than expressing emotion.
The idea all falls into place near the very end, in an extended sliding doors montage that delivers a resonance way beyond the limitations of its story…as it suggests to its audience the ‘what if’s’ to all their – our – lives. What if, the story concludes by asking, the sliding doors in all of our la la lands led us into alternative lives, alternative sound tracks? Would we be all the better or worse for it? Happier or just different? Are we living the life we chose, or just living in la la land?
LA LA LAND. Dir/writer: Damien Chazelle. With Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemary DeWitt, J.K.Simmons. Composer: Justin Hurwitz. Choreographer: Mandy Moore. Production designer: David Wasco (“Inglorious Basterds”). Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”)