“Here’s to the fools who dream.”
Dreams are wonderful, terrible things. They keep you going, always striving, always reaching and grasping and hoping. And they also tend to remain at a distance; out of reach; illusory. We may always believe in our heart of hearts that we’ll never give up on our dreams. But sometimes we realize that maybe our dreams gave up on us. Damien Chazelle’s lovely, melancholy modern musical La La Land is all about dreamers; about those stubborn, silly, special souls who just won’t let go. Until they do. This is a gorgeous, romantic and even heartbreaking film. And one of the year’s best.
Emma Stone is Mia, a barista who works on a movie lot and dreams of movie stardom of her own. She hurries off to audition after audition and always meets with the same result: a she pours her heart out into her performance, the directors and casting directors grow bored, or distracted. They usually cut her off mid-monologue with a curt “Thank you.” Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a pianist obsessed with jazz. To Sebastian, jazz is dying, and he’s one of the few people who can keep it alive. His plan involves opening a jazz club, but the location he’s dead-set on opening is already occupied by a “tapas samba” restaurant.
These two crazy kids meet, and meet again, usually under stressful circumstances, until they finally give in and realize there might be a spark. And what a spark there is. They go on a date to the Griffith Observatory (the one made famous by Rebel Without a Cause) and dance into the stars. You get a sense that you could watch Gosling and Stone woo and swoon for hours under Chazelle’s direction and Linus Sandgren’s lush cinematography. Los Angeles has never looked so lovely as it does here, a city lit in bright colors and hazy sunsets.
But Chazelle has more on his mind than romance, and La La Land begins to drift down some darker, more heartbreaking avenues. It doesn’t all quite work — there’s a lengthy chunk of the second act of the film that’s almost too simplistic, too undercooked, too void of music. Almost as if the film forgot it was a musical. But it doesn’t matter much, because Chazelle has one hell of a third act up his sleeve, complete with a sequence so emotionally powerful that you might want to leap from your seat and deliver a standing ovation once it’s through.
Chazelle continues to show he’s an immensely talented filmmaker. With Whiplash he channeled a young Scorsese-like energy. Here, he’s going more for Jacques Demy crossed with Stanley Donen, all while preserving a distinct voice of his own. With the help of editor Tom Cross, and the music and songs of Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle creates wonderful musical numbers that burn themselves into your heart and mind. It helps that he has Gosling and Stone, our modern day equivalent of Astaire and Rogers (or more likely Tracy and Hepburn) in the leads. The actors, who’ve appeared together in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad, have an impeccable chemistry together. With this film and The Nice Guys, Gosling continues to grow into more unconventional leading man. But the film truly belongs to Stone, delivering perhaps the best performance of her career. If her delivery of her final song doesn’t break your heart just a little, you probably have no heart to break.
La La Land will run you through the wringer. It’s uncynical but realistic; romantic but tragic; sweet but bitter. It’s an unapologetic musical in an age when musicals often feel the need to explain their existence. You’ll fall in love with La La Land, but don’t be too surprised if you get hurt as well. Just remember to never stop dreaming, and you might just be okay.
La La Land is playing at the Philadelphia Film Festival