“Why do you say romantic like it’s a dirty word?” LA LA LAND begins with what appears to be a hopelessly optimistic song about its titular city, as a seemingly random group of people stuck in a traffic jam sing opening number “Another Sunny Day.” It sets the tone for Damien Chazelle’s musical dramedy, not just because it’s filled with song and dance numbers, but due to the slightly cynical edge that underpins it. It’s a timeless tale of love, hope and loss in the city of stars, as the Whiplash filmmaker walks us through the backlot of reality.
After a series of missed connections, aspiring starlet Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and passionate jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) fall in love and inspire each other to greatness. Sebastian pushes Mia to pursue her dream of being a starlet, while he goes through the mill of the music industry towards the goal of owning his own club. Yet in a city that is infamous for taking dreams and smashing them to pieces, the film depicts a duo who must chose between love and fame.
The cleverness of LA LA LAND comes from its deceptively traditional approach to narrative. The “Presented in Cinemascope” tag at the start of the film not only speaks to Linus Sandgren’s glorious “head to toe” photography, but it necessarily recalls old Hollywood charm and its highly constructed filmmaking. Although very much set in contemporary Los Angeles, the bold mixture of Jacques Demy and Stanley Donnen comes from Chazelle’s love of the genre. That said, Chazelle’s film is not Woody Allen’s Everybody Says I Love You, although there are some Allenesque strains of self-aware comedy running through it. Nor is it Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, where the heightened language of song constantly flashes its peacock tail. Chazelle’s deep love of jazz seen in his previous films (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash) speaks to us as well, with his skills in blending music and narrative seamlessly resulting in a piece that is both a celebration and subversion of the form.
As such, the musical numbers are never intrusive, but they do reflect the false sense of reality that sits behind the scenes. At one point, Mia and Sebastian literally step into the backlot for an extended conversation, mirroring the sidestep they have taken from their dreams to pursue a relationship in a bubble. Justin Hurwitz’s lively musical pieces, most notably the signature dance around “A Lovely Night,” are against the backdrop of an impossibly coloured city. Pasek and Paul’s cheeky lyrics, such as the ones on “Someone In the Crowd,” continue to hammer home the idea of dueling dreams. It all builds to a proper 1950s fantasy sequence that would make Singin’ in the Rain proud, one that visually nods to the sets we’ve already seen.
At the heart of LA LA LAND, there’s a tension between the dreams of youth and the equally false notion of “growing up.” The film ultimately posits an alternate reality where one ideal wins out over the other, and it is left up to the viewer to decide which is the more tangible. After all, we only get a snapshot of a year or so in the life of these romantics, perhaps having already had their fate sealed by virtue of the city they chose to call home. Either way, Chazelle tells a story with such panache that it is impossible not to get caught up in its infinite worlds, ones you will want to revisit again and again.