Damien Chazelle wrote and directed the best film of 2014, Whiplash. He returns to the director’s chair with La La Land, a quasi-musical and instant contender for the 2017 Academy Awards. It’s the story of actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), two dreamers who meet and fall in love in Los Angeles. The script is top notch, and Stone and Gosling both knock it out of the park in their roles; Stone in particular has probably earned herself an Oscar nomination. However, it’s Chazelle’s nuanced direction coupled with Linus Sandgren’s incredible cinematography that will allow this picture to stand the test of time.
*Warning: entering spoiler territory for La La Land*
Take for instance how the team introduces Seb to the audience. The camera approaches from behind as he sits in traffic flipping through the radio in his classic red convertible (a Buick Riviera by the look of it). The rearview mirror briefly reveals his face, but the camera doesn’t show him head-on. With just that, Chazelle and Sandgren tell their audience everything they need to know about the protagonist.
If the car and the clothes don’t give it away, Seb is a nostalgist. He pines for a time long ago, a time before he was even born, and he refuses to accept anything new. When Mia suggests a new name and location for his club, he won’t listen because the name and location he wants harken back to the golden age of jazz. He resents his fellow musician Keith, because he feels the kind of jazz Keith does is a modernized bastardization of the genre. Seb views life in the rearview mirror where the audience first meets him.
Consider also Chazelle’s use of music. The first half of La La Land is a feel good musical straight out of old Hollywood. It’s bright with big dance numbers, and it instills a sense of hope as Mia and Seb fall in love. Then, halfway through the film, the musical numbers seem to disappear. What happened to trigger the change?
The music drops once Mia and Seb’s relationship begins to falter and reality sets in. Chazelle is making a subtle statement about love. He’s saying that even though new love may feel bright and never-ending, like in an old Hollywood musical, there’s no guarantee that it will stay that way. Life isn’t a movie where everything works out in the end. Relationships can get tough, and they require work. And even with work, things might not work out the way you hope, like they didn’t for Mia and Seb. The music returns a final time at the end of the film as the two dreamers fantasize about the life they could’ve had together.
La La Land is a work of art, but not for the acting or the set design. It’s for the way Chazelle and Sandgren tell the story without using words. There’s no scene where Mia chastises Seb for living in the past. There’s no cheesy, tongue-in-cheek line where someone yells “life isn’t some Hollywood musical!” Yet through outstanding direction and cinematography, the audience gets the same message. And those messages are that much more impactful because they feel earned. Years from now (maybe even next year), professors will be using La La Land to teach their students “show, don’t tell.”
La La Land is in select theaters now.