Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist struggling to reconcile his dreams with his current reality. Mia (Emma Stone) wants to be an actress, but is stuck serving coffee at a Hollywood movie lot for more than half a decade now. Their love story begins with an antagonistic exchange of middle fingers as they deal with LA’s chaotic freeway traffic, but eventually blossoms into a promising romance as they attempt to find a common ground in spite of their differences. But a home full of dreams and passion can only do so much when real life comes knocking at your door. As his musical goals take the backseat to give way to everyday practicality, her acting ambitions take a nosedive with every unsuccessful audition she ends up with. In a shared life overflowing with aspirations but perforated with only failures one right after another, will there be enough room left for love to grow?
The film is full of figurative imagery, both constant and moving. You have to love the pervasive presence of familiar Hollywood faces in Mia’s world, may they be plastered on the walls of her room or painted as graffiti on the streets. It is a screaming symbolism of her desire to recognized. A personal favorite, though, is that gravity-defying musical number at Griffith Observatory. The use of stars as a metaphor is abused alright, but gratifyingly so.
The cinematography is amazing. The indigo hues of the setting sun are so hypnotizing you must wonder if they shot that for real on location or if it’s CGI-enhanced. The use of vivid colors in one of the earlier sequences gives off a glossy MTV kind of feel, and then you realize that the texture suddenly changed without you immediately noticing. You then feel like you are watching the same film but through the lens of classic Hollywood. That tap dance sequence with the backdrop of LA’s sunset can easily blend in among song and dance numbers found in Hollywood musicals of old.
You know the cinematographer went the extra mile when you are transported to different eras without you even knowing, simply by playing with the lighting. But it’s not just that change in feel as far as the setting is concerned. The dimming of lights in indoor scenes, particularly those where Mia is facing a reflective surface, helps facilitate a smooth transition from one distinct mood to another. It’s as if they are trying to capture the abrupt shift in the character’s emotions by making it more palatable in a visual sense, like an intimate peek into their psyche. While lighting can be exploited for purposes of being flashy and nothing else, here it actually plays a major role in establishing a scene, turning it into moving art.
It’s not that hard to imagine this as a Broadway musical. They should give it a shot, given how the film itself already exudes a theatrical quality as it is. Their work is almost halfway done. The ending is heartbreaking, but we can appreciate the contrast. Hello, real world. The montage of the alternate scenario is bathed in a dreamlike atmosphere, pretty much how every what-if situation feels like off-screen. In effect, it is almost always easier to dream about an alternate reality than deal with the one you currently live in. The bittersweet smile that Seb and Mia share before the credits roll is a stark symbolism for acceptance, the acknowledgement that life will not always give you what you want because what’s more important is what you actually need.
They don’t do musicals like this anymore. The opening scene alone already promises a good show, and we are glad that the end product did not disappoint. La La Land is clearly a tribute, or maybe an ode to Hollywood depending on how you look at it. It chronicles not just the love story shared by two struggling artists, but also that deluded aspect of the entertainment industry that we never really get to observe firsthand. We’re not talking about just glitz and glamor here. The movie tackles shattered dreams, compromise, and all the other crucial factors that come in between. The road to success is not all rainbows and smiles after all. If you’ve ever dabbled in acting or working behind the camera before, then you’ll have a better appreciation of this story. This film gives you that. And more.