If you ever have the chance some rainy Saturday afternoon, sit yourself down and look up an old-school musical from the 1930s. They used to be the lifeblood of Hollywood: the ultimate in escapist thrill to a glamorous degree. Unadulterated (occasionally adulterated) optimism ebbs and flows through the screen during set pieces from classics like The Gold Diggers of 1933, Top Hat, and 42nd Street. Most importantly, they felt like their purpose was to genuinely entertain and transport audiences in America to a place far away from the reality of their lives. We’ve largely corrupted the idea of “celebrity” now, but the men and women of the screen were true role models for generations.
When Damien Chazelle announced that he would be tackling the age-old Hollywood genre hot off the heels of his devilish award-winning “Whiplash”, he was met largely with skeptical expectation to be a certain film that was perfected half a century ago. Instead, the young director found new ways to channel the emphatic tap dancing smiles of old.
La La Land centers on an artistic couple’s aspirations in both work and love in the horribly unforgiving city of Los Angeles. Mia and Sebastian, played by seasoned love-interests Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, portray a desperate actress and floundering jazz musician driving towards fame but crashing into each other far from it. Both down on their luck, they quickly fall comfortably in love with each other, despite reaching in opposite directions with their aspirations. Like every mid-western school-girl, Mia has always wanted to be the next star on the walk of fame, while Sebastian is more focused on recreating and honoring the past with his free-form jazz. With artistic aspiration they both have to learn to compromise on their way towards achieving their dreams. The film then dissects these visions of grandeur against the throws of love without fear or even care of treading worn ground, and its confidence is compelling.
La La Land isn’t quite like the glitzy classics in a lot of ways, mainly in its non-reliance on musical numbers to establish its plot. Expecting this to be a true-to-form musical one can easily get let down. Chazelle instead invests a lot of the story’s force into reliving the feeling old tunes carried and applying it to modern life. The songs are a vehicle for both establishing the world, and carrying the films most emotional beats, and it knocks these out of the park. With the film’s reliance on the physical act of acting and music making to convey most of the conflict, La La Land balances the outlandishness of a whole set singing and dancing with the reality of a bunch of creative types yearning to actually do so.
La La Land sets out to dazzle and pull audiences through the very emotions most films are trying to dance around today. It is earnest and simple and heartfelt and unashamed of itself, and this confidence is an exhilarating rush of the senses. If anything, it can easily lead you to the tap dancing air gasping singsong classics of old.