La La Land

Senses and sensibility: a struck-dumb Mia is captivated by the sound and then the coloured-lit sight of Sebastian at the piano

It is life’s shadows which emerge amid the glare of the Golden State that give this award-winning musical its true colour


WERE IT NOT for the captioned seasons that introduce each segment of this song-filled Hollywood-set tale, we would barely know where we were. Beyond the sharp daylight and rare snow flurry, it is the Christmas tree in the flat of barista/actress Mia (Academy Award-winning Emma Stone, exemplary), and the baubles and lights strung around the bar where disillusioned pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) works that help mark time.

Trad jazz-mad Seb’s assigned set list is a cheesy Christmas medley including ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, ‘Jingle Bells’, and ‘Deck The Halls’. When he chooses to go off-piste – which mesmerises a just-happened-to-be-passing Mia into entering the club – Seb is sacked on-the-spot by his stern manager (Whiplash‘s J.K Simmons). ‘It’s Christmas!’, the young man protests. ‘Yes. I see the decorations,’ his now ex-boss fires back. ‘Good luck in the New Year.’ When Mia, a silent onlooker moves to let Seb know her appreciation, he barges past her and out of the club. It is not the first time their paths have crossed: he got irate with her on a car-jammed flyover. That was no ‘meet cute’either,

Dreams Cost – And This Is Where You Start Paying

If, especially in the current political climate, you’re in the mood for sunshine and starlight, romance, dancing and singing down the street. And coming out of the cinema whistling a happy tune, you need to watch The Muppets (2011). La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s second feature (after 2014’s similarly jazz-promoting acclaimed Whiplash) is certainly full of colour, romance, humour, and dancing, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a well-matched pair. But La La Land also captures the pain, sheer luck, heartache, and struggle and determination involved in creating Art. (I had tears streaming down my face during Stone’s stunning, shattering singing of ‘Here’s To The Ones Who Dream’.)

Until this movie, I had underestimated Emma Stone’s sheer acting chops. She has an incredibly expressive face and her auditions scenes are a tour-de-force. Yet notable about La La Land is how the clear and obvious talent of all the behind-the-scenes departments are blazing up on the screen, too. As much as this is a movie about Hollywood movies and beyond, (from Rebel Without A Cause (1955) to Casablanca (1943) to The Red Balloon (1956) and a myriad more, the references could act as a viewing primer for film students) it is also about the mechanics of how movies are made. Yet apart from a storming traffic-jammed song and dance number at the very top of the film, Stone & Goslings’ own song and dance numbers are pleasant rather than knock-out: their footwork is sweet but without much natural grace – though that might well be the point. For a real musical, nothing beats West Side Story (1961)

A Two-Forked Road that Divides Romance From Dreams

The pair’s growing romance is juxtaposed with the rollercoaster trajectory of their dream careers. Sebastian yearns for his own jazz club (Gosling’s piano-playing is notably accomplished), while Mia desires to be a film actress They both begin very much in the same place of hoping for a break. When Seb loses the job he doesn’t even really want, made worse by it being at Christmastime, it runs parallel with Mia’s string of failed auditions. Their shared end of year predicament is reminiscent of the account in award-winning documentary Searching For Sugarman (2012) of Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez’s releasing ‘Cause’ with its prophetic lyrics: ‘Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas’ just before he was dropped from his record company on the turning of the year. It is not just that nobody will be hiring anyone until January but December is supposed to be an upbeat jolly twinkly month of family and celebration, isn’t it?

These two support each other but their dreams and the path each is on comes into conflict with the other. Women are no longer prepared to simply support a man while he fights for his own success. As also suggested by his debut, Damien Chazelle does not appear to believe that the road to success can ultimately be accomplished without choosing solitude. For all the sweetness of the couple’s dancing together so often and tellingly in the neon and artificial light of Hollywood, their dreams of life and love conflict.

Dreaming of the road less travelled?: love might prove a missed opportunity for Seb

La La Land might appear a challenge to Hollywood’s usual happy-ever-after. The course of Mia and Sebastian’s true love never did run smooth: it became tangled, split in two and went off at completely different tangents! Instead, it is staying true to your one true dream that is presented as the alternative myth. That is, just another romantic Hollywood fantasy.

La La Land is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray

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