The key word in director Damien Chazelle’s plot synopsis of La La Land must likely have been ‘Dream’. Hell, it was perhaps even the only one. The film is about the dreams of two starry-eyed people in LA land, the ‘City of stars’, which incidentally is the title of one of the many downright beautiful tracks in the film’s score. There’s Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, who won’t age apparently), a jazz pianist who wants to be the posterboy of jazz music, and then there’s Mia (the excellent as always Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who… hates jazz music. The musical story of their relationship unfolds in LA, amid its parties and coffeeshops, amid its theatres and bars, amid its stars and the wannabes.
Chazelle’s love for music, and jazz, in particular, spills over from Whiplash. Sebastian could well have been mouthing the words of Chazelle himself when he introduces Mia to the charms of jazz music. Mia, likely speaking for many of us, calls jazz “elevator music” and declares she hates it. Sebastian, who believes that ‘hate’ is easily used in matters concerning music, proceeds to explain the origins of the genre, and describes in charming detail how the music is the upshot of the on-stage tussle between the various instrumentalists, about how jazz, which is dying, is different each time. Mia is smitten by the explanation, and more so by the passion at the root of it all. In a key scene, she says she loves jazz, but that she always loved more… his love for jazz. Also, in a sense, the relationship of Mia and Sebastian is itself a bit like jazz–both trying to tug it in their directions, but somehow, the upshot being a romance that is at once both intense and tender.
I’ve never been one for musicals, and you will no doubt understand that considering the sheer overdose of musicals we get exposed to in regional cinema. Yet, I found La La Land riveting; it’s beautiful how scenes segue into songs and back. It shows how songs can make for deeply satisfying exploratory adventures into the characters’ subconscious. It shows how such musical exaggerations can be beautifully escapist. For a large part of the film, my mouth was agape in wonder at the sheer magicality of it all, my feet engaged in a perpetual tap. I loved the music in the film, but like Mia says, more so Chazelle’s unabashed love for it.
La La Land is full of nifty touches. I liked that a revelatory moment in Mia’s career occurs at a place called the Lighthouse Cafe. I liked that the coffee shop she doesn’t enjoy working in, bears the mundane title, Capuccino. I loved how their chance meetings in the beginning are both prophetic and portentous–more than once they are stopped when they are about to kiss: once by a phone call, on another occasion by the lights turning on. It’s almost like they’re destined not to be together. I loved how conventional success is the failure of Sebastian, about how Mia reminds him of it. It takes one dreamer to understand another, after all. I enjoyed how the story that happens across four seasons, comes to an end during the Fall, the events of which are literally interpreted. I loved how their date at Griffith Observatory, where they have ostensibly gone for star-gazing, ends up with them gazing into each other’s eyes… at the stars in them, at the stars they are about to be. It works on more levels than it seems. Chazelle again unabashedly literally interprets this, and lets them float into the clouds and back. In a sense, La La Land tries to do the same with you: come, rise above conventional rules, and let’s go flying.
While it’s true that each movie often means different things to different people, I have no doubt that La La Land will make for a deeply personal experience, especially for those who have trouble keeping their feet on the ground. I almost regretted watching it in a cinema hall full of people, considering how bared my heart was. Chazelle himself clearly is a dreamer, and he even tips his hat to himself and those like him when Mia, at a key audition, sings the line, “Here’s to the fools who dream… crazy as they may seem.”
As an aside, there were two things that were rather striking around the end of the film. One, the restlessness of a few viewers as the characters broke into what ostensibly seemed to them to be yet another song. Let the unmistakable irony of their frustration not get lost on you. Two, the jazz music that played in the cinema’s elevator. There were people talking over it, of course, but clearly, they weren’t walking out of La La Land.