I’ve seen a few people physically recoil when they ask for a movie recommendation and I say La La Land. I’ve seen it twice now and it’s my favorite movie of the year by a mile, but I get it. It’s a musical. It’s about L.A. It prominently features jazz. I care even less about jazz than I do about L.A.’s image, and I can count the number of movie musicals I’ve enjoyed on one firework factory worker’s hand. So take it from me when I say that this thing is a masterpiece.
A more compelling (but equally truthful) way to describe La La Land is that it’s like Brooklyn or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Inside Llewyn Davis (but, you know, a musical). If Eternal Sunshine was about how love is hard and Inside Llewyn Davis was about how making art is hard, La La Land is about how making art makes love even harder. It’s not entirely a happy story and it’s not entirely a sad story, and it’s fantastical only in ways that seem entirely honest. It’s about the romance of making art and the romance of mutual attraction, while being fully open about the fact that part of the reason that they’re so romantic is that they rarely work out. This isn’t a happy-ending musical, it’s a fulfillment-is-fleeting musical, which is the kind of thing that turns this cynic into a romantic.
Speaking of cynicism, one of the reasons La La Land works so well is that writer/director/jazz freak Damien Chazelle knows most of his viewers couldn’t give a rat’s ass about jazz. That’s why Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, a struggling pianist and aspiring club owner, is such a prick. Because he desperately loves something he knows the rest of the world doesn’t care about. So when Mia (Emma Stone) admits that she doesn’t like jazz, you can feel him try to pop the release valve on a sigh that’s been building for years, so that the vented fire doesn’t consume them both. Incidentally, another reason La La Land works so well is that it stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who aren’t just great actors, but human puppies. Her dinner plate eyeballs and his kindly forehead furrows fill me with unearned empathy.
The point is, Sebastian’s cynicism stems from his romantic worldview, from having to constantly watch his idealistic schemes thunk beneath the tires of commercial realities (his jazz club got bought from underneath him and turned into a “tapas samba joint”). I may not get jazz, but I can certainly understand being so passionate about something that it can make you a downer at parties. One of the things I loved so much about Inside Llewyn Davis was that no matter how bitter Llewyn got, he could still lose himself in his songs. His validation didn’t come from the outside world, but from the songs themselves. Which is why he still sang them, no matter how many times he got kicked in the teeth. In fact, getting kicked in the teeth only made him want to disappear more. La La Land‘s format only heightens this reality, turning the lights down on the outside world and giving Sebastian and Mia literal spotlights when they get caught up enough to forget the outside world. Turns out the song works beautifully as a vehicle for professional gripes.
As a struggling actress, Mia’s reality is even more brutal. At least Sebastian can still ply his trade (sort of) playing shitty Christmas music in JK Simmons’ yuppie restaurant. Incidentally, there are few things more hilarious than Ryan Gosling spitefully banging out “Jingle Bells” while JK Simmons looks on, grouchily contented. Ah, so that’s what all those other musicals I hated were missing — spite! Mia, meanwhile, has to rehearse all day, trying to find the honest feeling in two throwaway lines of a dumb network procedural, only to have a production assistant kill the moment when she barges in with lunch. Chazelle depicts so subtly, but so sharply, the slow soul strangulation of having to trudge back through a lobby of 50 identical redheads knowing you probably didn’t get the part. And you don’t need to be an actress to understand the feeling of the world constantly telling you that you’re not special, that you’re not in control. That you have so little control, in fact, that even if you were special, there might not be anyone there capable of recognizing it. Incidentally, Stone is almost as hilarious at putting her all into lines like “No, Jamal. You be trippin’,” as Gosling is at spitefully piano playing.
(Another fun L.A. thing is a screenwriter at a party telling Mia, “They say I have a knack for world-building. I got a lot of heat right now.”)
There’s a lot of bullshit out there about the lives of starving artists, but La La Land offers some truths (like how they’re not literally starving, just creatively starving, which still sucks). It shows us why they do what they do and also why not a day goes by when they don’t wonder why they bother. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool romantic has to wonder if they universe is trying to tell them to do something else. It depicts the constant conflict of trying to be true enough to your ideals that you don’t hate yourself but enough of a shill that you can still eat. And that’s relevant for just about anyone, artist or not. In fact, if it’s not relevant for your work please tell me what you do and what the training process is like.
If Sebastian represents being true to yourself at all costs and Mia represents being compromising enough to eat, they eventually push each other towards a middle ground (though maybe not one they can share). And depicting that as a literal “dance” is kind of a perfect choice, even if Gosling and Stone aren’t the world’s greatest dancers. It actually might be better that they’re not Astaire and Rogers, it makes them feel like regular people who are caught up in something (even if they’re actually two of the most adorable humans on the planet). 90% of dancing is enthusiasm anyway.
Just as Eilis’s conflicted feelings about emigration in Brooklyn manifested themselves in a love triangle, in having to choose between the comfort of a world she knew and the possibilities of a new one, La La Land raises the possibility of having to choose between art and love, between romantic fulfillment and creative. Like Eternal Sunshine, it finds the timeless allure of a really well-depicted fight, the way only someone who loves you can really cut you deep. Watching it hurts so good.
How selfish should love be, anyway? Should it be like Love Actually, where you try to screw up your best friend’s marriage with a half-assed cue card stunt, just so your feelings are known? Or should it be like Casablanca, where you put yourself aside and walk off into the mist with a French Nazi collaborator rather than wreck everything? La La Land doesn’t try to have it both ways. That’s what makes it so rare. It depicts the pain of having to choose and the bittersweetness of endless what ifs.