La La Land (Review)

lalalandposterCity of stars – are you shining just for me?
City of stars – there’s so much that I can’t see.
Who knows? I felt it from the first embrace I shared with you,
That now our dreams, they’ve finally come true.

When I was a teenager, my aspiration was to become a professional actor. I loved everything about the craft that I had experienced thus far: the thrill of being on stage, making a character and story come to life, entertaining an audience, etc. My passion for movies began in my teenage years as well, studying how special effects were created to make movies come to life. The combination of the two led me toward classic films and musicals and added fuel to this dream I wanted to pursue: acting. Not for the fame of being a celebrity, but for the ability to entertain and tell stories.

The problem with dreams is that at some point they come crashing into reality. For me this came in my early twenties. The practical side of me came into conflict with the dreamer. Acting wasn’t without great risks. To really pursue it meant moving to another part of the country, with little to no support. Struggling. Working some dead-end starter job while hoping to get a break. While I dreamed of being an actor, part of me also dreamed of having stability and a family and a future that I could see. So, the part of me that wanted to be an actor learned it was time to “grow up” and pick a path with more stability. This decision, while certainly not the worst of things, was a big blow to my marriage at the time. See, I was married to another aspiring artist. Only she wanted to be an actress more than she wanted the stability. The dreamer side of her won out. After our divorce, she followed that dream. She moved to the other side of the country and found limited success on screen. I like to think that our parting ways is what afforded her the opportunity to chase her dream, because I honestly don’t think it would have happened with us together. I also like to think we can look back at those decisions without regret, but there will always be a part of me that wonders what would have happened if I had pursued my dream, and I know there is a part of her that will always hate me for not being a part of hers.

This part of my past weighed heavily on me while watching La La Land, a story about two aspiring artists, Mia, an actress (Emma Stone), and Sebastian, a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling), who meet and inevitably fall in love. The narrative establishes both of them as flailing in their desired art form. Mia goes to unsuccessful auditions where she is surrounded by other actresses who are practically clones of her; he has been relegated to playing Christmas tunes in a club after his favorite historical jazz club is transformed into a Samba-tapas restaurant. When the two initially meet they resist any potential sparks, but this is a movie, and a musical at that, so the audience knows sparks will fly, even if their first musical number together claims otherwise, and fly they do.  The chemistry between Stone and Gosling feels real and sincere, and it should: this is the third film to see them paired up as a couple and the two are practically becoming a modern day Bogart and Bacall with an unmistakable on-screen presence.

City of stars – just one thing everybody wants.
There in the bars, and through the smokescreen of the crowded restaurants,
It’s love. Yes, all we’re looking for is love, from someone else:
A rush, a glance, a touch, a dance…

The use of a couple who are becoming the contemporary version of a classic film couple is no coincidence. Writer/director Damien Chazelle creates La La Land as a love letter to classic movies. The picture opens with a musical number that would feel at home in the musicals of the ‘50s and ‘60s, to the point that story elements like cell phones and Starbucks feel anachronistic when they appear. The picture pops with saturated colors of the Technicolor age and the soundstage filming approach used for many of the scenes, mixed with the abrupt onset of musical numbers, gives La La Land the feeling of those movies of old about which we claim “they don’t make them like that anymore.” Well, they can, and Chazelle does, giving La La Land an ageless quality that will no-doubt add this to the list of pictures that “aren’t made like that anymore.”

But Chazelle doesn’t just set out to recreate a bygone era of film. His narrative pursues deeper meaning in art. In one scene, Sebastian is criticized for his devotion of Jazz, for holding so strongly onto the past that the musical form practically has no future. The same could be true of La La Land if all Chazelle did was set out to pay tribute to an outdated art form without creating such depth within that form. Instead Chazelle looks at the cost of art and of pursuing artistic dreams. Over the course of the story, his characters make sacrifices, reach dead-ends, give up, and make unforgivable compromises in the pursuit of their passions, and ultimately face an important decision – which is more important: love or dreams? The main theme song, “City of Stars,” quoted throughout here, asks for both. But what the characters here eventually realize is that they don’t get to have both. Nobody gets to have it all. That simply makes Chazelle’s product here all the more compelling. There is no picturesque happy ending where the characters get everything, because everyone has choices to make in their lives. The re-creation of a classic movie feeling makes these characters’ falling into love so much more appealing, because those of us who grew up with those movies want that to be what love feels like. Eventually, however, reality sets in and these characters have to live with the consequences of their decisions, as we all must do, and even the magical presentation of the film changes as musical elements and vibrant color fade from view. Chazelle makes us want to be in love like the classic movies, but then smacks us with the futility of a post-modern message. La La Land is a strong tribute, but it isn’t real, even when it presents itself as we want things to be.

John Keats wrote in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Damien Chazelle creates a film here that captures that perfectly. The world of La La Land is beautiful and melodious, full of passion and excitement and energy and ambition and hope. While those things may exist in the world, especially when we are young, the puzzle pieces never fit together perfectly. The truth is that we have to make choices. These characters have to decide where they want to go with their lives, much like twenty-something me had to decide the course of my own life. While La La Land might serve as a painful reminder of that period of my life, it also shows me that choosing a different path just would have brought different consequences, regrets, and rewards. None of us have to be happy about that outcome, but sometime that’s life. As Sebastian says, “This is the dream: It’s conflict and compromise, and it’s very, very exciting.” That doesn’t mean it always has to be happy, however, because that’s one of the truths about life. La La Land understands that even fantasy needs a touch of reality, even if that touch can feel like a backhand.

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