Warning: This review discusses the ending.
Modern Hollywood, say people like me, is technically the best it’s ever been while being creatively bereft. Yet there’s one director working today who forces the obituarists to down pen. That man is Damien Chazelle. La La Land, both a pastiche of and contemporary answer to classic studio musicals, is the director’s second perfect movie after Whiplash; a young filmmaker whose craft is as precise and well-judged as the creative icons his characters venerate and aspire to.
One of the La’s in La La Land, is Los Angeles, here cast as the movie’s structuring metaphor; fuelled by nostalgia, today tempered by gaudy reality and decline. For Mia and Seb, the aspirant actress and Jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own club, it’s this affection for the past that powers their hopes for the future. They embody the film’s love for old Hollywood and old Jazz; an era of entertainment associated with a certain purity, for which read showy, colourful and magical, eschewing the cynicism or confection associated with contemporary product.
They long for it while being blissfully unaware that they’re in a movie that celebrates it. The film’s manifesto is laid out by John Legend as Seb’s old band partner in an aside on musical reinvention; a traditional approach isn’t enough; one has to make it new. Only then can a new artist follow in the steps of their defining predecessors.
Chazelle’s exploration of that idea is an act of note perfect calibration. La La Land could have been a straight pastiche of a classic genre movie with a little knowing modern sensibility, like Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, but it’s a more ambitious film than that. Chazelle’s not content to ape technique and aesthetic, rather inflect the material with the psychological realism notably absent from the era of filmmaking the movie evokes.
The numbers and choreography are charming, colourful, kinetic and whimsical in just the right proportions; songs with heart. But this is also a story that, like Whiplash before it, explores an uncomfortable truth, namely that the price one pays for doing “one thing well” – for achieving your dreams and breaking through, is subordinating all other considerations, particularly emotional entanglements. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are tender, believable lovers, enlivened by humour, plagued by self-doubt. They’re grounded but they’re dreamers and in this movie, that makes their relationship vulnerable.
Hollywood’s oldest lie is that relationships and family are the only currency worth trading in. That’s a message that sells when the film in question is pitched to a general audience whose aspirations are personal rather than creative. But Chazelle’s movies are about emancipation through creativity; the purity of the artist. And that means that here, as in Whiplash, the age old “Hollywood ending” in which two lovers overcome obstacles and errors to be together is undercut by something greater; the idea that dreams must come first.
But because La La Land is suffused with and informed by that old Hollywood magic, Chazelle is able to repackage the fantasy as a bittersweet epilogue in which the ‘40’s musical version of the story, in which Mia and Seb rise from the bottom together, ending up successful and happy in each other’s company, real world mistakes expunged, is presented as a kind of hyperreal musical dream, complete with classic staging and technicolour artifice, while in the movie’s solemn reality, the pianist plays a melancholy tribute to his lost love, who watches with her unsuspecting husband in the audience.
It’s a beautiful dream within a beautiful dream; golden age style bolted onto ‘70’s nuance. We’re left blubbing in our seats having been charmed, entertained and heartbroken, while treated to a rare example of a musical with dramatic integrity. What Damien Chazelle does for an encore, the Movie Gods alone know. Based on this, it should be anything he wants.