From the very first shot Damien Chazelle’s La La Land articulates through symbol after meaningful symbol: in a gridlock on the freeway to Los Angeles motorists get out of their cars and burst into a song-and-dance spectacle, creating magic in the traffic-jam of life, enroute to their dreams. We shall return to these same roads towards the end of the film, but the characters would come to decide on a detour; and much unfolds, meanwhile, in the snarl-ups within their stories to keep us riveted.
Separated into four inseparable sections, or weather seasons, to reflect the various states of a romantic affair, the tale details the fated encounter between an aspiring actress, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a traditions-driven jazz pianist.
After an abrasive first meeting, as his classic convertible swerves past her Prius, the pair falls inexorably in love. Sebastian, now no longer a single man, signs up with a modern band (led by John Legend), despite reservations about their musical style, to fulfill what he believes to be Mia’s conventional expectations of him.
In this time, following repeated-failed casting auditions, Mia herself prepares to stage and perform in a one-person play she has written under Sebastian’s encouragement, that would turn out to be an unnerving experience leading to unforeseen circumstances.
The acting is beautiful in this second feature by Chazelle who shot to acclaim with Whiplash. The chemistry between Stone and Gosling is mystical in a wise, grownup, clear-eyed way.
In one scene, at the planetarium, Mia and Sebastian launch into a magnificent dance routine, suspended on air against a cosmic backdrop, revealing how they feel.
Stone, who has co-starred with Gosling on previous sets, uses her expressive eyes to surreal effect — when not conveying energy and wit then welling up with disappointments or disbelief — while Gosling cuts a deep and nuanced, soulful figure, one prepared to make sacrifices for the woman he loves. The atmosphere is steeped in maturity by way of suffering.
Justin Hurwitz’s original score (the theme track, in particular) is stirring, like the best kind of stillness, in which hidden emotions are brought to vivid life.
There have been criticisms of tremors in Stone’s singing voice and Gosling’s steps . But, to me, they only add to the movie’s ingenuous charm.
Of good, pure, unblemished jazz, Sebastian emphatically pronounces, “This is the dream, it’s conflict, and it’s compromise; it’s very, very exciting.” And that, in essence, sums up what this Golden Globe winner has to say about art and love, sums up what it has to say, really, about living, with its many detours and traffic-jams.