I love old Hollywood musicals. The color, the music, the dancing. Above all: the spectacle. Musicals are made for big pictures and big emotions, for heartache and joy and true love (preferably at first sight). If the heroine isn’t spinning around in a mountain valley in Austria, she’s dreaming a dream big enough to start a revolution.
“La La Land” is about small emotions. The film melds an old-fashioned style with a modern, minimalist narrative. The clash between medium and content only serves to highlight the basic disconnect between the spectacle and the story.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress working as a barista. The first scene finds Mia caught in Los Angeles traffic. It’s hard to think of a more unromantic situation, but soon enough, drivers exit their cars and burst into song, dance, and acrobatics, converting a crowded highway into a stage.
Mia is oblivious, until the driver behind her lays down on his horn. When you see that said driver is blond, handsome, and a hipster, it’s not difficult to deduce he’s the film’s love interest (plus, he’s Ryan Gosling).
While somewhat predictable, Mia and Sebastian’s romance is just offbeat and charming enough to be engaging. He’s broody. She teases him. They both have dull jobs and unfulfilled dreams. She keeps failing one audition after another. He’s a jazz musician who’s tired of predictable set lists and the daily grind. In the same way that Mia hoards classic Hollywood memorabilia, he collects relics from the great jazz performers. They bond over their passions, in a series of whimsical song and dance numbers (my favorite is a tap dance on an empty road at night).
Once they get together, though, the film becomes decidedly less interesting. In the absence of romance, “La La Land” turns to the dreams. The fact is, the floundering career of an LA barista whose aspirations fail to transcend mere personal ambition is not very inspiring material for a film, much less a musical. “Les Misérables” it ain’t.
Mia is twee and ironic and determined to “follow her dreams.” I’ve heard this story a million times already. Sebastian is at least quirky enough to make for a compelling lead, but his motivation is similar to Mia’s—he wants to make it big. He wants to follow his dreams. To change the future of jazz. It’s typical of this white urbanite dreamer that when he explains his love of jazz to Mia, he omits the genre’s racial and historical context to emphasize the safer qualities of innovation and enthusiasm.
There’s nothing wrong with dreams, but it’s important to remember why they exist. If dreams fail to rise above self-gratification, are they really worth pursuing? Maybe, but there probably doesn’t need to be a musical about it (especially if neither of your leads can sing particularly well).
On the other hand, “La La Land” doesn’t give these ambitions the usual Hollywood ending. It leaves us with something far more ambiguous. Ten minutes of questioning don’t make up, however, for a film which is ultimately a hymn to empty ambition.
– Hannah Long