The title La La Land (2016; dir. Damien Chazelle) denotes L. A. Land—Los Angeles Land, home of the American film industry, the setting and subject of this film. La La Land also denotes fantasy, extreme fantasy verging on craziness, as when we say that someone who isn’t quite with it lives in La La Land. These meanings all apply to this film. It invokes romanticism while at the same time subverting and tearing romanticism down. It pays homage to earlier musical fantasies (to films in general, with its somewhat off-kilter nods to Rebel without a Cause—neither of the main characters are rebels) while at the same time discarding them and trying to offer something new.
The two principal characters—an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz pianist—are ambitious. They want careers in the La La Land of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. They’re not quite prepared to fall in love, but they do. Love and careerism intersect, conflict, combust.
I admire the fact that this film was made. It’s a mature and adult film, a serious musical in an era that doesn’t have much room for deviations from the prevailing norms. It never took fire for me. Only one or two of the musical numbers came alive. You could almost see Emma Stone counting her steps—one, two, three—in the dance numbers. But that’s all right. Neither Stone nor Ryan Reynolds was supposed to be a stereotypical character in a Hollywood musical. They’re imperfect, their dancing is entertaining but not on the level of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly—that’s still OK. This film is about normal individuals, not spectacular Hollywood sensations—normal in so far as aspiring actresses and jazz pianists can be normal.
The opening scene—with people stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam breaking into song and dance, was misleading. It seemed contrived and artificial and didn’t prepare for the film and story to follow. It reminded me of the musical Rent.
The final scene—an extended what-might-have-been fantasy dance and musical number—is plaintive and sad. (It’s also manipulative and predictable). We can all identify with it in one way or the other, speculating over different paths our lives might have taken, in the end recognizing that the one we did take was all for the best.