The past lovingly bleeds into the present in La La Land, a breathlessly earnest tribute to the musicals of a bygone era and the dreamers that inhabit them. Just like they were about talented young things wanting to get up and out, putting on a show and taking unfiltered leaps of faith for all to see, in the first scene (which I won’t describe further for fear of spoiling the kinetic joy of it) they jump for their dreams like their heroes Astaire, Kelly, and (it’s appropriate to mention) Reynolds. A Chorus Line may have started with a song about big hopes and dreams – cries of “god, I hope I get it”, where getting the part is a matter of life-or-death – but these are more of the type of Tulsa in Gypsy, who turns a back alley into his stage to tell Louise his dream. He’s got his tweed pressed, his best vest, all he really needs is the girl.
The girl is Mia (an understated and spellbinding Emma Stone, finally given dramatic material), an actress who’s currently serving more coffee to actors than actual acting, 20 feet from stardom on the Warner Brothers’ lot. The balcony from Casablanca is across the street, and while wandering the streets at the end of a bad day she walks past a mural featuring Hollywood’s legends; the shadows of another time looming. Her dreams come from childhood in a town far away from the bright lights, Saturday afternoons spent with an aunt who was an actress watching classics like Casablanca and Bringing Up Baby that lifted her from her childhood in Nevada into the world of Hepburn, Bogart, and Bacall. She tried law school, but you look at her and see that she couldn’t have been more ill-fitted for it. Los Angeles was fate, a life lived exactly like a Golden Age musical heroine.
If Mia’s life is a musical watched on Saturday afternoons, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, showing more depth and dramatic edge to the smart-alec charm he’s cultivated for the past decade) is a musical heartbreaker like Inside Llewyn Davis, where someone gradually sees their world dry up and is left in the alleyway as someone else makes off with the fame. He’s a more-than-slightly pretentious jazz devotee in the way that most breathlessly passionate people are, purist to a fault, dreaming in 2016 of opening a jazz bar named after Charlie Parker. They meet not-so-cute (times aren’t as simple as the ones where their passions thrived, remember), both too driven and stubborn to possibly work in tandem. Fifties movie couples were much more guileless, problems solved with a perfectly timed song and dance, everything much more possible. But they strike an understanding, two traditionalists sensing something more over the time-honoured method of a moonlight dance a’la The Band Wagon‘s Dancing in the Dark (not the first time the film calls back to Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s night shuffle around Central Park, another rapturous moment I’ll leave a surprise). As the seasons change, introduced with title cards and blaring musical moods, and their careers ebb and flow, dreams made and broken, they fall in love.
Damien Chazelle is a classicist himself, his previous film Whiplash about a jazz drummer driven to the edge by his strict and abusive mentor in the name of striking it big. Before that, he made the micro-budget Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, a black-and-white jazz musical that trades the Golden Age sheen for something grittier, complete with live performances. A former jazz musician and ardent musical fan, to say he writes about what he knows would be an understatement. But while Whiplash was bristling and tense, a horrifying and extremely serious absurdity undoubtedly brought about by his lack of distance to the story, La La Land is easier, quieter, more confident to play the downbeats. It may take audacity to open with such a large, all-encompassing number for fear it’ll be all downhill from there, but don’t mistake it for being self-congratulatory, for there’s no one more in on it than Chazelle.
It’s a self-consciousness openly discussed at every turn, for fear that someone might mistake his homages for copies and his nostalgia as laughable. Classic musical excessivity is out in full force. A spontaneous night out is a call-back to On the Town, a third act montage is everything from Funny Face to The Band Wagon to An American in Paris and even The Red Balloon. Mia, when about to take a leap of faith via. a personal project, frets that it “feels really nostalgic”, destined to be laughed at for its refusal to be too-cool, before Sebastian says “that’s the point!” without missing a beat. Being starry-eyed, even for a time one didn’t live through, is indeed La La Land‘s reason for existence.
Time is Mia and Sebastian’s problem, whether by being dropped in when their passions have passed their prime, or how everything in their relationship seems to be interrupted. In 1946 musicals were uninterrupted, their songs allowed to go on and on and on, but in the present, everything gets in the way. There is nothing more Chazelle is aiming at than showing that their romance, the type of which breezes by without a hitch in Singin in the Rain, is here constantly reminded that the briefly musical world they inhabit isn’t real and the old world is crumbling around them. The dinner burns during a heart-to-heart, a ringing iPhone interrupts a perfect intimate moment, a first kiss is thwarted by a breaking film projector; snapping back to reality in a second.
If time has done anything, it’s install a finer detector for when things stretch the bounds of believability even in something as disbelief-suspending as a musical; a fundamental difference between doing a copy and a remix of his numerous influences that Chazelle understands. His influences came from a different time, where musicals like On the Town and Hit the Deck were for recruitment and countless others were for morale, part of a system designed to churn out relentlessly wholesome material by stars who only did one thing. But such a state-sanctioned optimism would be unable to be stomached in the present, the threshold for song and dance being reached for many at some point. The only formal qualifier in a musical is that songs drive story, another, emotionally heightened manner of expressing emotion; and Chazelle has the innate knowledge of when his goodwill will run out, placing all but one of his showstoppers in the first two acts.
But even when La La Land isn’t leaping for the heavens through song, it’s soaring emotionally and quite satisfyingly so, with a dash of cynicism and urgency that the Golden Age wouldn’t have dared. It’s Stanley Donen, but also Jacques Demy, his influence felt on more than the blue and pink saturated frames. Demy imbued more melancholia into his films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg than Hollywood would’ve dared. Mia and Sebastian exist in a world of blockbusters and pop music, where the artificial reigns supreme. Many before them have tried, and many have failed.
It’s a land of dreams that linger in a tender part of the brain, where success hinges on a single decision. You wonder what might have been, but it’s ultimately a bit of a rose-coloured viewpoint, tinged by what has happened in your present reality. Chazelle entertains this with a dizzying final sweep that leaves one breathless and emotional, overwhelmed once again with that seemingly endless thing called possibility. Sebastian and Mia, find themselves in La La Land, both in the way of the foggy haze of the city and the dreams themselves. It’s a film so utterly, refreshingly at ease with its debt to the past, who refuses to be too-cool and assert any illusion of false modesty or anything but utter adulation for what came before it. There’s no airs, nothing going on under the surface, perhaps blissfully so. To take it back to Tulsa and the girl in the alley “if she’ll just appear we’ll take this, this great big town for a whirl”. It’s Damien Chazelle’s Saturday afternoon fantasy, and we’re just living in it.