Damien Chazelle’s La La Land begins on a freeway, in the middle of a massive traffic jam, and suddenly people are out on the road dancing. A few minutes later, the song over, everyone’s back into their cars, frustrated/honking, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is in a car behind Mia’s (Emma Stone), honking at her as the jam opens up, but she’s busy reading her audition script, and they give each other middle fingers, as they go there own way.
For the next two hours or so, La La Land takes us back and forth into those two worlds — of dreams and reality, effortlessly moving from one to the other, blurring the borders. It’s been described as a musical, and it is, in a way, but not in the traditional sense. Chazelle who gave us a extremely tightly woven Whiplash has taken all sort of liberties here. Songs linger a bit longer than one is used to. Closeups last longer than is strictly necessary, but richly paid off, thanks to the two lead performers. Side cast is side cast, with no effort made to develop any other character, and it really doesn’t matter (just like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation needed no one around them, really).
The story is simple love story between two struggling artists — Mia an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop (yes, very cliched but works), and Sebastian, an aspiring Jazz pianist — both trying to find out if they have it in them. As they inevitably fall in love, it all merges, professional dreams and life. They change each other, grow with each other, just to find that all of that comes with a bill (or a check, as the Americans would say).
Dialogues are absorbing, so are the lyrics. The colors are terrific. You savor frame after frame, assuming this can’t be bettered, but just as the two characters keep on saying about view of a lovely valley, “I have seen better”, another frame comes and proves it possible. Cinematography is exquisite, continuing with the recent Hollywood trend of using movies as a way to express love of a city (like Begin Again’s love affair with New York). And the chemistry is intoxicating.
Mia: It’s pretty strange that we keep running into each other.
Sebastian: Maybe it means something.
Mia: I doubt it.
Sebastian: Yeah, I don’t think so.
In a scene early on Mia tells Sebastian, “I hate Jazz”, hoping to get that out of the door, because she knows what it means to Sebastian, a Jazz purist of sorts (she doesn’t know it, but earlier on, when his sister suggests him to meet a girl, he asks if she like Jazz, and when the answer is negative, he goes: “but what will we talk about”?)
“What do you mean you hate Jazz?”, he wants to know, and proceeds to initiate her (and the audience, in case they share the feeling) into it. He doesn’t, as she is expecting, fly off the handle, but just wouldn’t accept the it’s true (how could she?) But as he tells her about it, he also tells her regretfully that his beloved Jazz is dying, “but not on my watch”, he boasts. What Jazz is to Sebastian, the musical seems to be for Chazelle – a dying art form that he wouldn’t let die on his watch (even Sebastian’s words for to Mia when she wonders if it’s just a pipe dream she’s chasing – “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s very exciting”, seem to be said to himself, as much as to Mia) .
La La Land is about Jazz, about magic of films, about arts, drama, and such dreams of the ones stepped in in performance arts, but what it is really about is underlined by Mia, in one of her auditions, when given a free hand, as she breaks into a song, that goes:
Here’s to the ones who dream,
foolish as they may seem.
Here’s to the hearts that ache.
Here’s to the mess we make.
That in nutshell, is La La Land — a story of dreams, and costs we pay to achieve them.
“Where are we”, Mia asks Sebastian, later on.
The emphasis is on we, not where. There are no easy answers here. Even as La La Land keeps on giving us glimpses of dreams, it stays rooted to reality. And in that sense, it isn’t a musical of 40s or 50s. Just like Whiplash, where excellence is never detached from the price of achieving it, there are no easy resolutions here either. But by the time the end credits roll, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the glorious mess we make, those of us who dream.
PS: A note on the lead actors. Emma Stone, who impressed in Birdman is fabulous here. Mia is meant for her. Ryan Gosling is more than competent — given the meatier role. And the music is fabulous, Jazz and all – what lovely theme that by Justin Hurwitz, something right up there with the best. What more can one ask of a movie? I watched it in a theater with 15 odd people, mostly bored, and disappointed. Maybe for those of us who have grown up on the Bollywood flavor of magic, this is underwhelming. But if you’re ready to step out of your comfort zone, do watch this love affair with dreams. Maybe, it’ll rekindle some lost one of yours too.