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.