Cinema, like any other art form, means different things to different people. For some, it’s a few free hours in the evening with friends. It’s as much about the cola and the conversation, as it is about the film itself. For some, it’s a chance to engage with a new world and characters. For some, defeated by the rush of new love, movies are about kissing in the dark and holding hands. And for some, dulled by the rigour and routine of life, movies are a means of escape to feel less lonely. For them, cinema is not just about images on a screen, not just a hobby, but a way of life – a belief system. For them, cinema is hope and joy – it is love and solace. And they have all wished, at some point, for their lives to be like movies: dreamy, unchained by reason, magical. And it’s this set of audience that will really get what La La Land, a romantic musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is trying to say.
For a film that frequently flits from real to make-believe, dialogues to songs, it’s fitting, in more ways than one, that La La Land is set in the land of movies – Los Angeles (LA). Its title, in that case, is both literal and metaphorical, for LA is a city of hopefuls, of dreamers – the kind who look for signs everywhere, in fortune cookies, in the ring of a cellphone, in chance encounters, where love and that elusive break (be it in movies, music or anything else) are right around the corner, waiting to be found and savoured. It is where life is lived with the endearing naiveté of an 18-year-old.
But life is seldom a linear chain of events. It’s always informed and thwarted by interruptions and by things that aren’t in our field of vision. La La Land’s female lead, Mia (Watson), for the most part, is constantly challenged by circumstances she has no control over. It’s a life of bad luck and bad days. Early in the movie, as she’s exiting a café where she works as a barista for an audition, she bumps into a stranger and her white shirt is ruined by stains of coffee. In a traffic jam, while practising lines for an audition, a loud car honk breaks her concentration. At nearly every audition, her impassioned performance is met with indifference and disinterest, as if she doesn’t even exist – as if the only remarkable thing about her is her insignificance. It’s a fascinating set-up. A life aching to belong to the world of cinema where scenes are written, sets are designed — but constantly getting punctured by life itself, the epitome of all things random and unplanned.
On the other hand, in a different part of the same city, Sebastian (Gosling), too, is enduring something similar. Living in a cramped apartment, struggling to pay bills, waiting endlessly for a break, Sebastian, an aspiring jazz pianist, a practitioner of an art form facing an imminent death, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He cares about jazz so much that while speaking about it, he launches into a monologue about the music, its history, about the musicians and their stories. His arms flail as he talks, losing eye contact with the listener, losing himself in his chain of thoughts. A less sympathetic, more cynical, film would have looked down on Sebastian’s idealism and ambition, but La La Land doesn’t, because it’s steeped in admiration of love that it inspires us to make our own music. This motif is literally brought to life in the film’s first scene, where in the middle of a long, noisy traffic jam on an LA highway, commuters break into a song (‘Another Day of Sun’), dancing and jumping on roads, in cars, transforming everyday banality into a thing of beauty. This scene, a wonderful stroke of magical realism, like several others in the movie, isn’t technically real and that’s fine, because La La Land is less about how life is, more about how it should be – less about the crushing lows of love, more about its liberating highs.
La La Land’s unwavering commitment to finding joy and love in situations that are ordinary and mundane is heartwarming. What’s equally impressive is that it’s always alert to its characters, the world they live in, the moments they experience. La La Land is, first and foremost, a love story between Sebastian and Mia, but a closer look shows a love story of a different kind, too – between the leads and the film itself. At various crucial moments — when Mia is looking at the mirror and imagining a life in the movies, or auditioning for a part or when Sebastian is giving his all to the piano, in isolation or in front of others — the screen turns black, only casting light on Mia or Sebastian, or Mia and Sebastian. This is what this film really cares about, because what is love if not everything else reduced to the periphery, with only our object of affection in sight?
Moreover, a musical like La La Land strives for, above all, is a mood and it finds that quite early. But a brief period in the film’s first half — when songs appear one after the other, stalling the story — it does make you wonder whether this will turn out to be all mood and no meat. But that, thankfully, doesn’t happen, for Damien Chazelle, La La Land’s director, is smart enough to change gears at the right time, skillfully switching from a fluid musical to a straightforward drama. La La Land’s heart beats for love and it does so for love of all kinds – Sebastian and Mia’s love for each other, their love for LA, Mia’s love for movies and the theatre, Sebastian’s love for jazz. A more conscious director, in a bid to make the film more real, would have perhaps tried to tone these elements down, but Chazelle doesn’t, for he knows his film. La La Land isn’t trying to be cool – it’s just trying to be itself.
And it’s not that the movie doesn’t dwell on the unpleasant parts of love – how it’s often sustained by the lies and about how, at times, it’s just about that one decision we take or the one we don’t and how there is more than one meaning to ‘happily ever after’. Chazelle, however, doesn’t need a chunk of runtime to even his film out. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation, one smile, one nod and the film comes back to us.
La La Land lives for – and by – its moments, which seem to be telling a story on their own. When Sebastian and Mia, on their first date, are looking at the stars in an observatory and, seconds later, start floating in the sky, you feel that this moment is saying something – that this universe may be infinite and intimidating, but, at the end of the day, you just need one person and maybe it’s not that difficult, that maybe someday stars will align. Beyond the rush of falling in love, beyond the single-minded headiness of following one’s calling, La La Land is about desire, of various kinds. The desire to belong (to a city, a person, a profession), to be accepted, to be seen for who you are. La La Land makes you feel like an 18-year-old again when nothing was random and when everything — a smile, a meeting, a phone call — held meaning and promises, when self-awareness was low, innocence was high and floating among the stars wasn’t such a distant dream.