“La La Land” Has the Heart of a Romantic, the Head of a Cynic

Damien Chazelle’s new film has a lot more in common with Whiplash than it seems.

La La Land
Dale Robinette/Summit Entertainment.

Unabashedly earnest, dreamily photographed and convincingly acted (and sung, and danced), Whiplash director Damien Chazelle’s new musical La La Land is styled after the song-and-dance films of yore, with contemporary trim. (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s numbers were never interrupted by the ringing of an iPhone.) Much of the early (near-universal) acclaim positions the movie as a musical for people who don’t like musicals — which is exactly what Chazelle may have intended.

“One of my biggest dreams, when we were starting out, was to make a movie that people who think they don’t like musicals would like,” Chazelle told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “I thought of it like the frog boiling slowly in water. Maybe people wouldn’t realize they’ve been suckered into a musical until it was too late.”

Yet, there’s little chance that anyone would confuse the movie with anything but a musical: La La Land opens with a sweeping number that wriggles and jumps from the traffic jams of the Los Angeles freeway to poolside parties in the Hills, in the process introducing our hero, a floundering jazz musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and heroine, an aspiring actress named Mia (Emma Stone). They’re both stuck in traffic. He cuts her off; she flips him off. A classic meet-cute. They encounter each other again at a restaurant where Sebastian plays piano; he’s just been fired when she walks in, and he brushes past her when she approaches. Then, in true Hollywood style, there’s a third meet: Mia enters a party to find Sebastian playing the keytar in a bad cover band. This is the one where they fall for one another, a romance consummated, of course, by yet another dance number, perhaps the the film’s most memorable one.

Nor does it seem, really, that La La Land needs to trick anyone into falling for it. The movie has charm to burn. Its looks are ravishing; every hour is the magic one. Its romantic leads have the chemistry and wattage of Rogers and Astaire, even if they are slightly less accomplished dancers. And while it’s suffused with nostalgia, it also questions its own romanticism. Sebastian laments the decline of jazz and the jazz club, but his rose-tinted outlook has a foil in Keith (John Legend, of all people), an old musician friend who recruits Sebastian to play synth in his new band, which performs a commercially successful version of jazz that is probably an affront to Sebastian by its very definition. They have an argument about jazz that could just as easily be about movie musicals. Keith points out that Sebastian’s complaint — they don’t make ’em like that anymore — is a fallacy: They don’t make like that anymore because that was then.

“You’re holding onto the past,” he says. “But jazz is about the future.”

The movie that allows Keith to get the last word in this fight is not the La La Land that has been advertised. Many initial reviews, while glowing, have painted over the nuance in Chazelle’s argument, reading the movie as a straightforward reproduction of its influences rather than a commentary skimming over their surface. On the heels of the Venice Film Festival, the Evening Standard described La La Land as “a monster musical, embracing every cliche about the hopes and frustrations of young talent in Hollywood as if they were all newly minted.” (It meant this as a compliment, by the way.) Even the film’s trailer splices together scenes from an early, brusque encounter between Sebastian and Mia with a later dream sequence, an alternate reality that results in a happier conclusion.

But La La Land is not as romantic as its trailer. Midway through the film, Mia and Sebastian split, she moves to Paris, five years pass. The audience searches for a tidy, happy ending — the one they saw in the previews. It won’t be found here. Much like his last effort, Chazelle’s new film is ambiguous to the last, refusing to come down on either side of its internal conflict between romantic nostalgia and cynical realism.

Chazelle wrote his previous film, Whiplash, in part based on his own experiences in a high school jazz band; he had a conductor similar to the fascistic one played by J.K. Simmons. (In an interview last month, he told W‘s Lynn Hirschberg, “I made him as big an asshole as possible in the service of greatness.”) La La Land has a similar autobiographical subtext: the story of the bright-eyed artist who arrives in L.A. in the hope of making it, combined with a deep-rooted uncertainty about the future of his craft. (For Sebastian, it’s jazz; for Chazelle, the film industry — The Ringer, not incorrectly, called La La Land an “anxious” film). Both are preoccupied, to varying degrees, with big-band jazz, though neither is really about jazz. Both films also tap into the political zeitgeist. I described J.K. Simmons’s character as fascistic; in fact, he has been embraced by some right-wing contingents. (Chazelle, to The Dissolve: “[Jazz band conductors] haven’t exactly been models of progressive politics.”)

Whiplash’s dark meditation on power dynamics and tyranny felt fresh and necessary in 2014; this year, in the wake of the actual apocalypse, La La Land’s promise of a bright, nostalgic reflection seems exactly what moviegoers want from Hollywood. The film has been greeted with such warmth in no small part because, at least superficially, its jubilant escapism feels like something of an antidote to the political climate.

But what makes La La Land so interesting is that it subverts these expectations. “The throwback musical La La Land would be a vote for escapism,” David Sims wrote in The Atlantic of its Oscars chances, “though to that film’s credit, it is partly a fable about the dangers of nostalgia.”

In the wake of Trump, after Brexit, and ahead of elections in France, in Italy, in Australia where populist movements seem poised for victory, La La Land is the film we both want and need. It’s charming, and it’s also real: The guy doesn’t always get the girl; the very idea of “making it” might actually be a moving target. La La Land pays homage to its own myths, while questioning them at the same time.

Watch a video interview with La La Land star Emma Stone: