Los Angeles in general is a city based on “could have.” I “could have” been a star, I “could have” not gotten that DUI, etc. But rarely does that “could have” concern itself in most residents’ minds with the idea of love lost. No, there is little time for thoughts of such grand romantic notions–the kind that Hollywood was once so adept at selling onscreen during its increasingly nostalgic Golden Age.
And so, even if you’re a cynic or the discomfited-in-the-face of emotions type, one can’t help but marvel at the existence of La La Land in the year 2016. Its unbridled sentimentality is not only rare, but nearly impossible to come by in a state that manages to pull it off. On the heels of Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle proves that the key to getting audiences through anything with too much Old Hollywood musical schmaltz is by tempering it with just the right amount of sardonic dialogue.
Though the film opens with a “rollicking” (only a musical can dust off this word) number set against the everyday traffic of L.A., the hopefuls that burst from their cars to sing “Another Day of Sun” offer a mix of both appreciation for the never-changing weather, which can lend a more sinister air to the overall seediness of a town that David Lynch so frequently uses as his backdrop, and ironic disdain for it as the much needed title card “WINTER” pops up to indicate the season. Among those forced to sit in the traffic to live out their so-called La La Land fantasies are Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works as a barista on a movie studio lot, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz musician with hopes to open up a club that will house his decreasingly appreciated classic tastes. Both are “aspiring” (because your passions and talents mean nothing until money and fame legitimizes them) and both seem to be caught in an antiquated version of Hollywood that most others have long ago let go of (probably somewhere around the time Glitter was made).
And yet, love at first sight it is not as Sebastian honks at her to move, prompting Mia to flip him off as she gets distracted from the script she’s rehearsing for an audition she won’t get called back for later. It is just one of now infinite auditions that have gotten lost in the abyss of her memory, a bank of impressions that tries to block out the rejection and rudeness that comes standard with putting yourself on a casting agent’s chopping block of judgment–or worse, apathy.
In spite of this, she is cajoled by her three other would-be actress roommates to go to a party in the Hollywood Hills that night, in a scene that might have been achieved with superior wryness in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Though her roommates have less wistful predilections toward the abstract concept of L.A., they still manage to get her to briefly buy in to the excitement of an industry fête, telling her that this is where all the deals are really made. Instead, she encounters a writer who boasts of his knack for “world-building” (vom) and ends up losing her friends and getting her car towed from its parking spot–three distinctly L.A. “problems” that people put up with for one simple motive: hope. Whether in its initial fresh off the boat form or the faintly glimmering incarnation that comes from living there for years, hope to accomplish the dream they set out for is what drives (often literally) Angelenos to persist in enduring the labyrinthine issues presented by the city.
Plus, when you do endure it, you just might happen upon something magical–the way Mia does after walking an implausible distance in heels to come across a club where Sebastian is reluctantly playing all the Christmas hits. But it is his own original composition that catches her ear and her heart. That is, until after he gets fired by Bill (J.K. Simmons) for playing jazz against his very express wishes. Rather than stopping to receive Mia’s compliment, he bumps her aside and leaves the restaurant in a huff.
When spring comes, Mia finally has her vengeance by happening upon Sebastian yet again at a party–only he’s the 80s-themed band entertainment dressed like a Flock of Seagulls member and playing the keyboard. Her satisfaction over requesting “I Ran” to mock him is met with Sebastian’s insults, ones that suggest her profession as a barista leaves her no place to look down on him from. Still, hate and contempt is often a veneer for attraction (it’s one of the ways La La Land pays tribute to the dynamic of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn). And, ultimately, Mia and Sebastian can’t deny theirs–Sebastian going so far as to visit Mia at her movie lot cafe to ask if she has a break. It’s walking along the backlot that the two become more acquainted, Mia telling Sebastian of the aunt who sparked her zeal for old movies and Sebastian taking her to a jazz club to teach her how to enjoy it.
Cautiously becoming more pleasant toward one another, Mia agrees to see Rebel Without a Cause with Sebastian for “research,” even though she’s still dating the blowhard writer she met at the party from awhile back. Continuing to imbue the story with just the right amount of homage to classic films past, Chazelle paints his characters in the tableau of the Griffith Observatory (also where several key scenes in Rebel Without a Cause took place). The title of La La Land at last gives way fully to its surrealism as Sebastian and Mia dance in the air with one another, giving way, in turn, to the love between them.
And with each encouraging the other’s dream, it feels as though they’re only helping rather than hindering one another. That is, until Mia propels Sebastian toward a successful music career–albeit one he never really wanted. Touring constantly with neo-jazz singer Keith (John Legend), the divide between them grows as Mia finishes writing her one woman play, So Long, Boulder City. In the wake of its failure, it becomes Sebastian’s turn to push her back to her dream the way she did for him, as he travels to Boulder City to pluck her from her post-uncast actress coma and tell her that someone liked her performance enough to seek her out for an audition. The catch, naturally, is that it would be produced in Paris.
So, yes, La La Land is for the ones who dream (foolish as it may seem), but it doesn’t paint the rosy picture that this means you can have everything once you manage to get that original dream. And it is the final scene that gives Mia and Sebastian their “could have” been ending. The problem with “could have,” however, is that we always tend to over-glamorize it in our minds.