From its very first line Damien Chazelle’s La La Land introduces the core dilemma of not only its characters, but countless creatives everywhere; the things we sacrifice for our dreams. This sacrifice is played out in the beautiful but heart wrenching story of a struggling jazz pianist and an aspiring actor, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone respectively, who meet and fall in love while pursuing their dreams in Los Angeles.
And what a Los Angeles it is. Damien Chazelle paints a rich portrait of the city and its duality for those who pursue their ambitions there. La La Land’s Los Angeles depicts itself as a technicolour dream world right from the opening number, only for this illusion to come crashing back down as soon as the music stops, leaving behind a still beautiful, yet callous Los Angeles. Chazelle walks a fine line between romanticising the city and showing the reality of living there, never sugar coating how cruel Hollywood can be, but still managing to depict the beauty that the characters see in it when viewed through the lens of their dreams and aspirations.
For Sebastian, played by the always impeccable Ryan Gosling, that dream is jazz. Seb’s main goal in life is to open a jazz bar in the city where he can play whatever he wants, for as long as he wants, as long as it is pure and true jazz. The only issue – Jazz can never really be pure and true, even though Seb would never admit it. Seb is a firm believer in the idea that ‘Jazz is dead’, a saying common among jazz elitists who think that, unless you’re playing Miles Davis to a tee, you’re not playing jazz. For a genre where one its most influential pieces is literally called Giant Steps, this belief is a bit limiting to say the least.
Jazz thrives on experimentation and growth, and while they mightn’t sound like a Coltrane quartet, artists like Kamasi Washington and BBNG are proving with every new release that Jazz is anything but dead. Regardless, to Seb, Jazz is in need of saving and he is willing to face conflict and compromise and everything in between to be the one who saves it. To him, the dream of owning a jazz club and saving the genre, is beautiful, perfect and very, very exciting.
Doubtlessly, just as exciting for Damien Chazelle, was being able to include this reflection on Jazz into a film of his own. An ex-drummer himself, it’s easy to see how big of a role the genre has on Chazelle as an artist, with him and his frequent collaborator, Justin Hurwitz, including elements of the genre in every score they compose, from their breakout hit Whiplash to their earlier student film Guy and Madeline on a Park bench.
It’s not just a novelty either, as in every film they make, Jazz is the perfect choice for their soundtrack, style and setting; La La Land is no exception. Jazz is, in its DNA, inherently a genre about dreaming, moving forward from traditional forms of music, chasing improvisation and energy, following the emotion of what this sequence, what this half-second of music could be. It’s an electrifying genre that sets the perfect stage for the development of La La Land’s story and style. That is until something else joins the fray. A new tune, a new sound, a new player in the composition and a new dream for both Sebastian and Mia, love starts to blossom.
Who isn’t a sucker for love? It’s easy to act like a snob who hates anything that could be considered a rom com, but deep down, even if we never admit it, we’ve all watched that one trashy Adam Sandler film way too many times. Love in rom coms and the majority of films on the gilded Hollywood screen is perfect, heart-warming and entirely constructed. The romanticisation of ‘love’ as a concept is a well-known issue in cinema and narratives as a whole, with a large majority of movie going audiences at least unconsciously aware of the questionable reality of Hollywood love.
And yet, you’d be fooling yourself if you said you’d never found yourself wishing to find someone with a boombox outside your window, someone to tell you that ‘you’ll always have Paris’, that you ‘complete’ them. Everyone wants Hollywood ‘true’ love, whether they admit it or not. The reality is though, that ‘love’ only exists in the sometimes.
I don’t know whether I’m qualified to say it but sadly for those of us that dwell in the real world, happily ever after isn’t a possibility, hell even ninety minutes of enemies to lovers followed by a fade to black isn’t going to happen. In real life, love, as written by Hollywood, is harder to catch than that. But it can be caught, and that is what La La Land is so adept at doing.
In real life, that look, that touch, that kiss, are the only moments of Hollywood magic that make it into our mundane lives, and La La Land understands this, telling its viewers that if you want to find Hollywood love in reality, you have to look for the magic in the moments. By using old school Hollywood mainstays, musicals, tap sequences, Chazelle creates moments of acknowledged unreality to portray the reality of love. Love isn’t a rom com. Love is, walking past your car to get a few more minutes of chatting in, touching hands in a cinema, dancing in between shimmering stars. Love is a dream, shared by two people, and it is beautiful. But you can’t dream two things at once. So what happens when that love clashes with your dreams for the future? Cue the epilogue.
Five years after parting ways both Mia and Sebastian have made their dreams a reality, with Mia ordering coffees from her old work before being driven off to set in her own personal golf buggy, and Seb fine tuning the keys on his very own Jazz club’s piano. By a twist of fate, Mia manages to stumble upon Seb’s club and is dragged in by her husband to listen to just one song.
Seb spots Mia as she takes a seat and the two share a look that tells you everything about their past five years. You can practically hear the voices in their heads running rampant, going over every ‘what-if’ scenario, every scrap of connection, and conflict that brought them to this very moment. Seb takes a seat as his piano. He plays three notes. The world stops.
Suddenly we are rocketed back to Mia and Sebastian’s first meeting, to a different reality where a kiss starts the couple on a whole new dream, in a whole new Los Angeles that is just as stunning as a musical and everything that could go right, does.
A melody of every love motif, date song, and moment of musical passion from the film plays as Mia and Sebastian dance, hand in hand, from beautifully dressed sound stage to sound stage, each set depicting a defining moment in their relationship that, in this technicolour dream world, goes exactly the way they wanted it to. Mia aces her audition, leading to the two weaving in between waves of back up dancers as they make their way to Paris, kissing under the Eiffel tower. Seb opens up his jazz club ‘Chicken on a Stick’ and plays his heart out, while Mia gets made up for her leading role, coming back together at night to wander the streets of Paris, hand in hand, a portrait of true love.
After yet another dance in the stars, the pair sit down to watch their life together play out on a cinema screen showing their home movies. Moments of real-life magic, true love, flicker on the screen, the pair living happily ever after as a family, with all their dreams a reality. Finally the lovers wander the streets of Los Angeles, finding their way into a Jazz bar. And suddenly we are back to reality. Seb plays the tune out. He looks up at Mia from his piano. She knows exactly what he played. A song of dreams, jazz, love, and everything in between. Their song. Mia smiles. Seb smiles back.
Mia follows her husband out of the club and Seb starts on another song. They each return to their lives, their dreams made reality, knowing what could have been but still being happy in spite of it. That’s what the film has to say about the things we sacrifice for our dreams. That is the creative struggle. That is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.