There are more movies than could ever be counted about love and relationships, but when you narrow things down to very specific statements about what relationships are, and/or how they work, the field becomes very narrow.
La La Land is not only a very precise meditation on the struggles and woes of life and relationships, it’s also one of those extraordinarily rare movies that can pull you up from the depths and remind you just what movies can actually accomplish, and why you love them.
Coming to us by writer/director Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with Whiplash as well, La La Land is a multi-faceted gem that is a musical, but almost accidentally, a love story, but not really, and a tribute to the magic of movies and dreams. It isn’t even just the story, or the slick dance routines that mix with the stars’ ability to sling barbs at each other, but the oddity inherent in the cinematography and set design that somehow gives us a world that is both the present day and a neon-lit “Nighthawks.”
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own club where real jazz can find a place to hide from the rest of the world. Mia (Emma Stone) hopes to become an actress and has the luck you might expect. The two meet, then meet again, then ultimately decide that maybe they should stop doing it.
The film bounces between themes and motifs in a way that shouldn’t work, and at times in ways that only show up in order to let you know what you aren’t watching. The opening number is “musical” taken to another level, but introduces you to a movie that isn’t going to appear. Our stars recognize syrupy, “dating” dialog, but only in order to make clear the kind of things that won’t be said. This makes for a theory you might be moved to buy into, but a film that’s nearly impossible to make. It’s one step from silly at every turn, and if the stars aren’t perfect in their delivery the whole thing turns into the construction of someone who is deluded, instead of the work of someone who just loves film.
It becomes truly mind-blowing when you get far enough to realize that all of these things are secondary. The dialog and character construction elevate the idea of musicals to a new level, aiming at a realism that simply isn’t part of the genre. It pulls you into the story in a way that makes every moment mesmerizing. Moreover, much of the film’s ability on every front owes a surprising debt to Stone and Gosling’s effort when not speaking at all. Stone’s somber march through the red-headed forest is something to envy, and Gosling’s last look just shouldn’t be possible.
All of it, magical as it is during the ride, is only there to make the ending possible, and it is an ending that becomes one of the best moments in the history of movies.
Love and relationships are the subjects of virtually all art, not because it’s all we think or care about, or because that’s really all there is to life (though those statements are true), but because there’s no way to actually explain what is being explained. Artists simply fail again and again, hopefully in new and exciting ways. La La Land doesn’t get things right either, but it’s as good as it gets.