Damien Chazelle delivers a near-perfect postmodern musical with his latest offering, La La Land, a film in which the only flaw is, frustratingly, its most indispensable asset.
La La Land immerses itself in the softly neon-lit landscape of Los Angeles, and centres on the intertwining dreams of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), and frustrated jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
In terms of casting, Stone and Gosling are a tried-and-tested match made in heaven. Stone’s Mia seamlessly fluctuates between the often fierce voice of artistic integrity and a ghost of rejection, floating hopelessly from one failed audition to the next. Gosling always brings the right measure of justified arrogance to a character when required, and does so again here with his portrayal of jazz purist Sebastian.
La La Land is refreshingly self-aware for a film of its genre, without descending into parody. Thematically, it treads similar ground to Chazelle’s much-lauded Whiplash, with its sobering treatment of talent, ambition and success. There’s even a cameo from the master dream-crusher himself, J.K. Simmons. Thankfully, however, there are no bleeding drummers in sight here, only bitter pianists.
The film manages to present itself as a true romance, albeit with one foot placed subtly on the ground. The central narrative of Sebastian’s and Mia’s relationship dismisses, almost methodically, the tired tropes of rom-coms. There is no meet-cute: their first interaction consists of a blaring car horn and a middle finger. Their second meeting, which taunts the viewer with the customary signs that this is “meant to be”, ends with an ill-tempered shoulder barge.
The slow, faltering bloom of romance perfectly anchors the dreamlike musical sequences to a tangible reality. In doing so, La La Land also makes it clear that this isn’t a barefaced homage to old Hollywood; with its pointed nods to the intrusiveness of modern life, the film is self-consciously out of step with its own genre. However, as trope-defying as La La Land may be, it’s still fundamentally a musical, and therein lies the rub. Stone and Gosling are, noticeably, not musical theatre actors. That isn’t to say that they are bad, but that they are simply not good enough for the demands of the film.
It could be argued that Stone’s pretty (yet obviously double-, possibly triple-tracked) singing is an extension of her character; it is noticeable that her most impressive vocal delivery comes as her character teeters on the brink of stardom. But even if we see Mia’s and Sebastian’s singing and dancing abilities as an extension of their conflicted, imperfect characters, it is still completely unnecessary to the film’s success.
In terms of both its self-awareness and its ability to blend dreams and reality, the way in which the film handles its central themes and narrative would be enough to convince us. More than this, it’s a logical necessity for La La Land to establish itself as a well-functioning musical (which it does with aplomb in its opening number, where Stone and Gosling are notably absent) if it’s then going to deconstruct itself. Gosling is no Gene Kelly, and an unfortunate side-effect of the film’s near-constant evocation of old Hollywood is that we are constantly reminded of this.
However, given that in every other way Stone and Gosling are perfect, it is impossible to call this a miscast. Coupled with Chazelle’s intoxicatingly beautiful LA dreamscapes, the tenderness with which the pair navigate the highs and lows of love and ambition ultimately wins out. La La Land is a romance of epic proportions, while still feeling real enough to hold in the palm of your hand. 4/5