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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

The Reel Critic: "La La Land"

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, "La La Land" tells the story of Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), two struggling artists who fall in love after they repeatedly run into each other on the streets, restaurants, and parties of the Los Angeles social scene. 

Wilder is a jazz musician who rejects the modernization of the genre and dreams of opening a night club where only classical jazz is played. In salute to Charlie Parker, he wants to name his club "Chicken on a Stick." Dolan is an actress who, in between unsuccessful auditions, works as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot. Like Sebastian, Mia is an old soul, whose love of film and want to be an actress came from watching classic cinema with her aunt. 

At its core, the film is a fantasy. The two are bonded by their want for a Los Angeles that no longer exists. Chazelle's story takes place in a kind of dreamworld, where Mia and Sebastian are able to pursue their desires in a romanticized Los Angeles. 

The film will be classified as a musical, but it really isn't. Truly, it is a cross between a melodrama and romantic comedy, with a few song and dance numbers that add a dash of color and play into the fantasy of it all. While I did not care for the film's musical numbers, they do not detract from the film. 

Stone and Gosling are not the multi-faceted performers — Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers — that they try to emulate. Neither excel at dancing, thus making for weak and boring choreography. And they are not particularly good singers either, though Stone is by far the best of the two. I'm of the opinion that Gosling should never sing again. Thankfully, the musical numbers are few and far between, and the film is saved by the pair's superb acting.

Like the actors themselves, Mia and Sebastian bring out the best in one another. Mia accompanies Sebastian to gigs, where she dances in the crowd and encourages him to pursue his passion and be a better performer. Sebastian helps Mia realize her talent as a playwright, urging her to write, produce and star in a one woman show. While neither of them are making any money, they are pursuing their passions and, for the first time, are truly happy. They are in la la land. 

As their relationship grows more serious, Mia's mother calls her to inquire about Sebastian's career. Mia tells her that he wants to open his own jazz club and will "figure it out." After he overhears their conversation, Sebastian comes to realization that he must find a more stable job if he wants have a real life and relationship with Mia. He reaches out to an old classmate Keith (John Legend), who offers him a job as a keyboardist in his jazz band. Keith's band is a blend of jazz, pop, and funk — the new wave of jazz that Sebastian detests. Even though he hates the music, Sebastian accepts the job in order to earn a steady income. 

To the film's detriment, Chazelle hardly tells Mia's story. As Sebastian goes on tour with his band, Mia is working on her show, and while she is more charming and interesting, her creative process is not explored. The film is Sebastian's and Mia is a passive character.  

Sebastian's decision to join Keith's band drives him and Mia apart. One night, when he is home from the tour, Mia questions his decision to abandon his dream. A fight ensues, and Sebastian accuses Mia of no longer loving him now that he is successful and she isn't. In that moment, their relationship comes to a halt; they leave la la land and return to reality. They come to the realization that they cannot pursue their careers and be together, no matter how much they love one another.

A typical movie will portray reality and deliver a fantasy, where the man/woman gets the job and the girl/guy.  Chazelle rejects this norm, and uses the fantasy of "La La Land" to showcase an unfortunate reality: the irreconcilable nature of love and ambition. In the end, both Mia and Sebastian are forced the choose between the two. 

The final scenes of "La La Land" comprise one of the most original endings that I have seen in a long time. In a beautiful and breathtaking sequence, Chazelle provides the audience with a glimpse into what could have been had Mia and Sebastian chosen a different path. 

The sequence challenges our preconceived notions of love. Is it a roadblock or bridge on the road to success? What matters more: one's romance or career? "La La Land" forces us to contemplate these questions and the very nature of love, and it does so in a charming and intellectually honest way.