By Darin Skaggs
When Damien Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash came out I enjoyed it quite a bit. It had great acting, directorial choices and it looked wonderful, not to mention the amazing sound mixing and editing that I imagine was pure hell to perfect. I did wonder though if Chazelle was going to be a one hit wonder. When his next film crossed my radar and I learned it was a modern day musical romance starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, I had high hopes that Whiplash was not just some fluke. When I saw his new film, La La Land, I was pleased to find out that he was not a one hit wonder, but may have topped his previous work.
Like I said La La Land is a musical about Mia (Stone), a wannabe actress and Sebastian (Gosling), a stubborn jazz enthusiast that after two not-so-meet-cutes find themselves falling in love. All the while their romance is blossoming; they are also following their dreams. While Mia wants to be a big movie star inspired by her aunt who succeeded in theater and showed Mia several classic films, Sebastian inspires to open his own jazz club that would play pure jazz and not the stuff that he feels has “ruined” the current state of his favorite musical genre.
The musical aspect of the film works incredibly well here. I don’t care much if the songs in a musical have nothing to do with the plot, but it certainly is nice when it does happen. And La La Land is no exception. Every song is motivated from the dance at the museum indicating that they are in love now and feel synchronized with each other with their dancing or to the audition scene where Mia’s voice swells with passion as she becomes more confident in herself that she is nailing the audition. Not only do the songs move the plot along in a highly entertaining way, they are also purely just great songs. You can find me at least once a day humming the main theme “City of Stars.”
If there is any thematic tissue between Chazelle’s two very different films, it is that they both explore what is means to follow your dreams. In Whiplash Miles Teller plays an inspiring jazz drummer who sabotages every relationship he has to perfect his drumming. The film could state it takes a lot of hard work to reach your dreams, and other people are going to drag you down. In La La Land a different approach is taken, while the two main characters have hard to reach goals they still need each other to motivate them to get there. The movie in the last third argues without them having each other and inspiring each other they would not have made it to where they are at the end of the film. Is it the happiest of endings? Not from a cinematic sense, but they do reach a certain amount of success and happiness. There is a what-could-have-been sequence that is up in the air, but that seems just as happy as the life they have now. I believe the movie is saying that the people who motivate you are always important to fulfilling your goal, no matter where the relationship ends up. It is a beautiful, yet almost melancholy statement that I absolutely loved.
There is a passion for the art of movies here. Chazelle throughout the film references several classic musicals and non-musicals subtly and not so subtle. The two love birds go to watch Rebel Without a Cause and then visit areas where it was filmed after the reels break during the showing. That theater they go to then closes which is shown at the character’s lowest point. The movie is even presented in CinimaScope, which began at a time when the musicals that Chazelle is lovingly paying homage to where at the top of their game. I appreciate more and more a filmmaker’s ability to show their passion for film without taking you out of the movie. And that’s why Chazelle has made a loving homage to musicals crammed inside of this touching love story.