La La Land, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s homage to the classic Hollywood musical, is positively brimming with nostalgia – but not in the way you might think.
For Chazelle (who shot to fame with 2014’s Whiplash) isn’t so much interested in harking back to yesteryear as he is in breaking down and complicating what such nostalgia signifies.
The film features two characters who each engage with nostalgia in their own ways: Mia (Emma Stone), whose visions of making it big as an actress in Hollywood are linked to memories from her past; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a pianist who dreams of reviving the golden age of jazz.
That they live in Los Angeles, a city that specialises in the business of packaging such sentiments, is not lost on us, but Chazelle excels at finding the heart in even the city’s more prosaic aspects: a huge, infectious song-and-dance routine in the middle of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam on an LA freeway, or a giddily tongue-in-cheek dance number at a typical Hollywood who’s who party.
He is aided in this by the cinematography of Linus Sandgren, who captures an LA that isn’t just larger than life, but romantic and intimate too.
When Mia and Sebastian dance inside the Griffith Observatory – a tribute to the James Dean classic Rebel Without A Cause – and literally lift off to whirl among the stars, it is a grand cinematic moment that will thrill even the most cynical viewer. In contrast, the camera creates moments of beautiful tenderness to match Sebastian’s solo number City Of Stars on the Hermosa Beach Pier.
Set against this backdrop, we watch the unfolding of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship.
An adorable courtship, complete with a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers-inspired number, is followed by the two settling into a relationship while struggling to achieve their dreams.
Anyone who loved the Gosling-Stone pairing in Crazy, Stupid, Love will have much to swoon over here (the less said about their turns in Gangster Squad, the better), and even their rough-around-the-edges singing and dancing display a certain charm.
It is all thoroughly irresistible, but coming on the heels of a year that has felt decidedly bleak, La La Land’s Technicolor-hued song-and-dance romance can feel both refreshingly light and somewhat insignificant.
And truth be told, the first half or so of the movie is quite puzzling – for all its exuberance and its stars’ chemistry, it often feels predictable, sometimes even twee.
But just as one begins to wonder what all the fuss is about, Chazelle begins letting reality show through the constructed exterior, and that is when La La Land truly begins to seem genius.
As expected, Mia and Sebastian discover that neither love nor their dreams are as simple as they first seem, and Stone and Gosling imbue their characters with enough realness to underscore the point: that life doesn’t follow a script, people aren’t character tropes, and not all conflicts can be resolved with a song.
And quite brilliantly, the film’s pervasive sense of nostalgia suddenly isn’t escapism anymore. It is a connection to the past, a reminder of dreams that seemed too difficult to reach.
Nostalgia becomes armour, inspiration, a method of seeing a different way to be, and this is embodied in a touching solo by Stone, Audition (The Fools Who Dream).
But inherent in nostalgia is the idea of loss, and La La Land comes full circle with a final act that is somehow both heartbreaking and joyful. The dreams worth keeping, it suggests, are the ones that survive a harsh brush with reality. As for the dreams we leave behind, there is the exquisite longing for what could have been.
La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, J.K. Simmons, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt