In a world bogged down by realities such as a President Trump, Brexit, shootings, bombings, ISIS, protests, social injustice in so many forms, and an ever growing hatred and dissension spreading to the farthest reaches, we are invited to La La Land. A place that director Damien Chazelle describes as a film that “should feel like something magical could happen at any time”. But what if it doesn’t stop there? What if something as simple as this tiny little film about living for your dream and reaching for the stars (literally in one part) is actually a wake up call to a generation on the brink of giving up?
First Things First
But first, a review.
La La Land is a whimsical, dreamy musical set in present time, but timeless in it’s presentation.
The opening scene drops us right on the 110-105 interchange in Los Angeles. It’s hot, miserable, and everyone is irritable. But within seconds, the entire screen explodes into action with the drivers climbing out of their vehicles. A young lady in a yellow dress takes the lead in the lively song “Another Day Of Sun” as the once-drivers-now-backing ensemble progressively come alive all around her and join in the anthem.
The opening scene feels almost like an audition of sorts. A hard dose of what is to come. Maybe an effort to acclimate the audience, to see if we have what it takes to truly appreciate and enjoy such a film.
I admit that, despite being a musician and songwriter, I’m not typically a fan of musicals. But this movie grabbed me almost instantly.
Just as we are pulled into what is happening, the lady in yellow drops off the screen and we are quickly transitioned to the true stars of this story. We join Mia (Emma Stone); an aspiring actress in her late 20s who is struggling to make her dream a reality, sitting behind the wheel of her worn in dusty Toyota Prius, practicing lines for an upcoming audition. She is interrupted by the honking of a 1982 Buick Rivera, and a frustrated driver whom we later learn is the other half of this story . We eventually join this other character who is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling); a jazz pianist and jazz purist, struggling to make ends meet in a restaurant playing Christmas tunes and trying his damnedest to stick to the set and not to slide into improvisation.
As the story progresses, you may find yourself eventually coming to the realization that this film is everything you didn’t know you wanted. It feels as though you are being whisked away to a place where nothing is happening in the world except you trying to make it happen for yourself. A place where colors are vivid and bold (thanks to the use of heavy primary colors, strategic placement of bold patterns, and the whole thing being shot on film), giving us the illusion that we are seeing this world through the same rose-colored lens as our characters. Every moment of this film is overtly romantic, and forces you to yearn for a reality in which all things fall into place as easily as a room full of people fall into perfect sync with the rhythm of the music.
What surprised me most was that the vehicle used to drive this story is Jazz music. I hadn’t seen a Jazz musical that felt like it was going to more closely resemble Hairspray or Grease. Though I shouldn’t have been surprised since this film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who also wrote and directed Whiplash; one of my favorite jazz films of the last decade. It was a welcomed surprise, none the less.
The integrity of the musicianship in the scenes where people are actually playing instruments is surprisingly upheld. Even Gosling, whom I didn’t even know played piano, impresses with every note.
“La La Land”, an unofficial and ironic term coined years ago for Los Angeles, is a beautiful love letter written to the city. In this letter, we are captivated by its passion, boldness, and willingness to step out of the pack and remind us that we still like when movies transport us to surreal worlds that make us want to conquer the world, singing and dancing the whole way.
Ultimately, I went to see this movie to see why it was nominated for 14 academy awards, fully expecting it to be all hype and only nominated because it was a movie about Hollywood. But what I discovered was that this film was a striking musical drama, with undertones of a convicting message to us all about the world we are forced to endure when we are brought back to reality as the credits roll.
I highly recommend this film, and I will be seeing it again.
Beauty In The Pain
One of the things that struck me so heavily with this film is the fact that it’s not just another shallow musical by any stretch. It feels very happy-go-lucky throughout, but has a very clear point it is trying to make.
It feels as though the point of this film is to tell millennials to stop whining about how hard it is to make their dreams a reality and just get to work and keep grinding away.
At one point in the film, Mia is doubting she should have ever pursued acting. She has been doing this for six years. She’s tired. She’s worn down. And she’s doubting herself. She argues that maybe she isn’t supposed to be an actor. Maybe she’s supposed to be doing something. Sebastian tries to convince her that this is the dream and its conflict and compromise and its very, very, exciting.
“What if I’m not good enough?”, She responds.
These words echo in the vast chambers of any heart that has ever longed for anything that took risk and sacrifice and crazy amounts of courage.
“Stop being a baby!”, Sebastian exclaims.
There seems to be this loud message to the audience to stop dreaming and start the work of making it happen. Things will be difficult. It will be excruciatingly painful at times. It will feel like the whole world is against you. Everyone will stop believing in you. And things may not work out in the end the way you thought they would, but it will be great and you will do something that matters if you keep letting your passions dictate the path you take, and continue doing what makes you come alive.
That is what I took away from it and that is the main reason why I truly loved this movie. It was exactly what I, and everyone else in the theater needed to hear. And it was delivered to us in the packaging of a shiny, hopelessly romantic fantasy.
Maybe the reason this message hits home on what feels like such a personal level is because the man who created it, Damien Chazelle, followed his own dream of sorts, and defied all the odds just to make this film a reality!
Chazelle wrote this story in college with his best friend, who is also the composer of all the songs in the film. They tried to make this film happen years ago when they were fresh out of college. Focus picked it up, but with hesitation. After the project had officially stalled. Chazelle was forced to move on to other projects. It was at this point he created and then later adapted the film “Whiplash”, which went on to be thrust into the spotlight after taking the cake at indie film festivals and even getting an Oscar nod.
It was at this point that when he revisited La La Land, people were there to listen. It’s amazing what a little success can do.
But even with a little success under his belt, the first test screenings of the film were disheartening to say the least. Audiences weren’t connecting with the film or the characters.
With more doubt and uncertainty on whether to move forward, Chezelle pushed on. He found himself seated at the Venice Film Festival and was actually so nervous that he kept his eyes shut for a good half hour of the film! The end of the film was met with a standing ovation, and Emma Stone going on to win Best Actress for the film. The rest, as the say, is history. (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/la-la-land-unrealistic-hollywood-dream-critical-acclaim-942793)
Maybe this is one of the reasons why it felt like it struck so deep that this story about two beautiful people in a beautiful city surrounded by beauty isn’t a story of beauty at all, but one of pain, sacrifice, heartbreak, and ultimately acceptance. This is your story, and my story. This is a film about how pain shows us the true beauty of life. And that we shouldn’t let it get us down or discourage us from living up to the character our passions claim that we are.
The Right Film At The Right Time
I believe that this film was released exactly when the world needed it. Like a fresh spring of water rising up from the dry sand in the middle of a desert right at the brink of death.
For me, it couldn’t have been better timing. It was only weeks ago that I was forced to move back to Chattanooga, TN from Nashville due to the loss of a job, and being unable to afford rent, or anything else. I’m in debt, and a whole lot of things didn’t go well for me in the last year. It was at this juncture that I decided I could no longer try to pursue the safe routes and allow my dreams to remain dreams. I had to pursue what makes me come alive. I had to create and write and travel.
My parents consistently believe I am insane. I’m convinced that, despite the fact that they make valiant efforts to support me and encourage me to keep fighting the good fight, they also think I will starve to death in a box in the back of an alley while holding my guitar.
I lost most of my friends. And I fight the notion that I’m not good enough or strong enough on a daily basis from voices both inside my head, as well as people around me trying to remind me that I’m foolish. But I can no longer ignore what I feel that I must do, and if it means that I die in a cardboard box, clutching my guitar, then so be it.
This film was a reminder for me. I bet it’s a reminder for you too. I’m willing to bet you can relate to my story. Because we are all going to face an existential moment where we question what we should be doing with our tiny little blip of time we are given on this tiny blue dot.
When Mia asks if she is good enough, I slumped in my chair. My chest tightened, and my breathing became shallow. I felt the sinking feeling in my stomach that I knew all too well.
And then Sebastian told me to stop being a baby. I laughed out loud. I rose up and straightened in my seat, and I felt bold, and brave.
I guess sometimes we just need Ryan Gosling to tell us to stop being a baby.