There’s a new drug in town. It is, as a matter of fact, ubiquitous and pervasive across the world. Its primary vehicles are the social media, the online and print media, the political and apolitical events swarming this world we live in, and other forms of information constantly being barrelled down our eagerly addicted receptors. The drug is despondence, and it is maddeningly addictive. The more you imbibe it, the painfully and sinkingly lower you go, the Armageddon of hope your choice of conversations and dopamine release. Amidst this grim landscape, is there hope of even a temporary and temporal relief?
If life in a cinema hall provides you succour and hope within its moving images – or even if it doesn’t, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is that much required antidote for these times. La La Land wears its ambitions very lightly on its cinematic sleeves, and yet becomes the beacon of hope in a world seemingly gone awry. It’s focus is not on you, but on the challenges that the city of Los Angeles throws at a struggling jazz musician, Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress, Mia Dolan (Emma Stone). By the time the movie reaches its moving conclusion, you realize that within its layers of jazz music and songs, there’s lies ensconced an ethereal message about life and ambitions, that’s all the more relevant in these maddening times.
Sebastian and Mia criss-cross through their careers (or lack thereof) with a frustrated stolidness, each of them wanting to spread their wings of talent and fly to their ultimate and respective peak of achievements, not ever pinning the summit to a will-o’-the-wispish fantasy. Amidst these zig-zags, they bump into each other, again. And again. And the playful friction throws out sparks, that soon leads to the realization of love and a life that now ought to be shared together. Director Chazelle keeps the plot-line simple, yet beautifully engaging. He doffs his hat to the technicolor and cinemascope days of musicals, tapping his tribute lens to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, bringing out a joie de vivre and bounce long unseen in movies these days. As the scenes roll out in musical beats and rhythms, sometimes all jazz, sometimes beautifully symphonic, you realize you’re beaming like you did in, say, The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady. And much like those bursting-with-joy experiences, La La Land promises to begin blowing its trumpet at the award ceremonies rolling out their red carpets very soon.
And aiding this absolutely uplifting effort is the lead pair. Ryan Gosling, who learnt the piano and tap dance for this project, is superbly nifty and light on his feet – his tap dancing a joy to behold. He chugs, ball beats, back flaps, barrel rolls, shims, and patters with such light grace, you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Watch him in the A Lovely Night number, as he playfully spars with Emma Stone, jousting in lyric and dance choreograph, the city of LA in the starry backdrop; he’s equally brilliant while playing the piano, his fingers tapping and flying over the keys in movements of minor and major exuberance, his countenance an octavian triumph of playing. He’s so good in the scene where he’s explaining the nuances and origins of jazz to Mia, and is rip-roaringly horrified when she mentions Kenny G while he’s waxing eloquent about Thelonious Monk. Or, the scene where Mia joins him for a move, albeit late, and once she’s seated beside him, Goslings’s eyes sparkle with gratefulness and affection – a beautiful moment, that. Inside the Griffith Observatory, before his dreamy waltz with Stone, he so casually and oh-so-naturally caresses and wipes the circular platform, you want to watch that action over and over again. Or, when he suddenly hears the rap beat clouding a jam session with Keith (a very likeable cameo by jazz musician John Legend) and his band, his confused and uncertain expression a class act. And of course, in the haunting City of Stars song (sung so smoothly by Gosling and later by Gosling and Stone) shot in a loving pier-scape by the director and cinematographer Linus Sandgren – his moves with the hat, and then serenading a lady, all the while hoping that love is in the air – are a must re-watch.
Emma Stone is a sparkler too, her ballroom and tap dancing training for this project lending an assured state of lithe and refined twirls in her dances and moves. Her vocals are beautifully layered, especially in the scene where she auditions for an important role, and sings the Audition (The Fools Who Dream) number. Her performance here is a show-stealer, as she slips into an almost semi-calvaric state of reminiscing about her aunt’s experience in Paris. Hers is an act of hope and strength, her doe eyes a fabulous reflection of Mia’s aspirations and dreams, of her passion and her love life. Note the scene where she sees Sebastian accepting compromises onstage, her expressions a malleable mix of surprise and pride.
The rest of the cast provide solid support, but J.K. Simmons and Rosemarie DeWitt are sadly underused. The other solid performer in this movie is composer Justin Hurwitz. La La Land boasts of original songs in its soundtrack, and that in itself is no mean beat. Combining jazz, samba, blues, bop, and old-wordly and Broadway musical influences, Hurwitz composes a winner all the way, automatically putting himself as the top contender (and conductor) for the Academy Awards. Mia and Sebastian’s Theme is such a beauty on the piano, while Planetarium (where the lead pair dance in the observatory) is a rich hue of dreamy symphonies. To me, the winner is the aforementioned City of Stars. After the longest time, Hollywood cinema features such a haunting ballad to love, to a city, and an absolutely sparkling toast to hope. Just for this twinkling, softly treading number, the soundtrack is a champ.
La La Land is an ode to life and the city of Los Angeles – the opening Another Day of Sun number shot on the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange a stunningly choreographed capture of dance, song, and traffic. In a scene that’s sure to melt your hearts, when Gosling and Stone’s characters meet after her audition, you and Gosling know she’s going to get the role, while she isn’t sure. But when her expressive saucers of eyes brim over and she tells him, “You know I’ll always love you,” nobody is sure of what’ll happen to them. And that’s the lesson that La La Land teaches us. When you want something in life very bad, the steps you take must account for what you actually want from life. For, there will come a time when we’ll all have our la la land moments – regardless of where we live, LA or not – and those will be wistful, heart-wrenching moments of what-if. As Sebastian explains to Mia, jazz music is all about struggle, conflict, and compromise. Ditto for life. And yet, despite this lesson, when you do walk out of La La Land, you’ll have a song on your lips, a spring in your step, and life is, even if temporarily, Los Angelic.
La La Land is rated A (Restricted to adults). There’s some swearing, and lots of sax and violins.
La La Land
Director Damien Chazelle Running Time 2h 8 min
Writer Damien Chazelle
Stars Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt
Genres Comedy, Drama, Musical
Watch the trailer of La La Land here: