“To the ones who dream”-- A review of “La La Land”

Jenny Ly ’18

Contributing Writer

For that person in your life who dislikes musicals because characters inexplicably launch into song and dance at several key intervals, I recommend you take them to see “La La Land” anyway. You are in good hands with writer-director Damien Chazelle.

In an interview with PBS, Chazelle said that his main priority was to cast “people who would really flesh out these characters with the same amount of depth and complexity and truth as they would if there were no musical numbers in the movie at all,” explaining that the numbers are supposed to “emerge out of the emotions that the actors have fleshed out.” Chazelle’s approach gave the film a sense of sincerity and realism not typically found in movie musicals.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a stubborn jazz pianist dedicated to the greats of the past and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, pursue their big dreams in Los Angeles, the city renowned for its cutthroat showbiz scene, stunning smog sunset and frustrating traffic jams – all of which are showcased in “La La Land.” The movie opens with an energetic number, “Another Day in the Sun,” filmed on a freeway overpass where people stuck in traffic hop out of their cars to share exactly why they came to LA. This scene establishes early on the tone of ambition and the immense concentration of hopeful, talented people in this metropolis.

The songs (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) never feel cheesy or stilted because Gosling and Stone deliver such passion and vulnerability that it feels natural that they express their feelings through tap-dancing on a hill before the purple sunset. At times, the melody is small and sweet, as it is hummed or accompanied by piano, mirroring the on-screen struggle with rejection. The orchestra swells in triumph during happier moments.

Stone is fantastically vulnerable and playful. Her character Mia voices her fear, “What if I’m not good enough?” one night after an especially disastrous audition. Sebastian puts on a tough-guy act and never vocalizes this fear, but it manifests in his actions, as he sacrifices his purist jazz ideals in order to get steady work. This struggle will be familiar to everyone who has put themselves out there for their dream, wondering whether to give up and retreat to safety, even if that means finding a more conventional job or quitting altogether.

The film addresses the sting and toll that failure has on one’s ambition, but also shows us how friends can push each other to stay true to their dreams. At crucial moments, Mia asks Sebastian if he is playing the kind of music he wants to, and he encourages her to write the roles that she wants to perform, rather than enduring the shoddy casting calls.

While “La La Land’s” main attraction may be the romance between Mia and Sebastian, framed in shots of LA, the tension that drives this film is from the struggle that these two characters face. Should they compromise and take bad gigs to pay the bills? How many more years should Mia works as a barista before she gets her big break? What is the price of ambition?

The pay-off of getting back up on your feet each time, after years of rejection, can be immense. Just look at the two stars - who hasn’t heard of Stone or Gosling? During her Golden Globe acceptance speech, Stone tearfully declared, “To any creative person who has had a door slammed in their face, either metaphorically or physically, or actors who have had their auditions cut off, or waited for a callback that didn’t come, or anybody, anywhere really, that feels like giving up sometimes, but finds it in themselves to get up and keep moving forward, I share this with you.”