I thought La La Land would be an all-singing, all-dancing, magical dreamscape. But it is not a film of wonder. La La Land flattened me.
That, in itself, is strange. For much of the film, which has received a record-breaking number of Oscar nominations, is anything but flat. The plot follows the blossoming love-story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they each try to make it big in LA. He dreams of setting up an authentic jazz bar and resurrecting a genre of music he loves. She is a small town girl doing endless auditions in the vain hope of becoming a Hollywood movie star. Their initial animosity turns (of course) to love, and we watch as their relationships with each other, and with their dreams, progress. It’s bright and it’s buoyant. It’s joyous and exuberant and visually beautiful. As other have said, it’s a love-story in dazzling Technicolor.
In fact, there is a lot about La La Land that I really enjoyed. I laughed at Mia’s audition sequences and noted, with respect, that Ryan Gosling really was playing that piano. Pretty well too, given that he learnt from scratch for the role. But I am most preoccupied with La La Land’s melancholy.
Now I’m all for a little melancholy. In fact, if you ask me, often there is nothing better than the bittersweet. But La La Land is so steeped in melancholy that, leaving the cinema, I thought I might drown.
I keep coming back to one scene. Mia, Emma Stone’s character, has finally secured an audition that could provide her with a big break as a Hollywood actress. Her boyfriend, aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian, waits nervously outside. Unlike the razzmatazz of the first part of the film, this scene is more or less devoid of movement and of colour, save for the earthy almond of Emma Stone’s eyes. She is asked to tell the casting director who could give her a career-making role about Paris. ‘Tell us a story,’ they say.
And she does. She starts out speaking, then her voice turns to song. And the song she sings is beautiful and heart-breaking. ‘Here’s to the hearts that ache, here’s to the mess we make,’ she sings. It floats high on whimsy and drips heavy with melancholy. It is bare, raw, simple undeniably beautiful.
This song stuck with me for its sincerity. Against the excess of the other musical numbers, it felt honest. Here Mia was, finally being herself. At last, by expressing her own self she would stand out from the crowd, as she had always wanted to do. In that moment, ‘She captured a feeling/Sky with no ceiling/The sunset inside a frame’. And I willed her to fulfill her audacious dreams of making it big.
The song goes on, ‘a bit of madness is key/to give us new colours to see/Who knows where it will lead us/and that’s why they need us/So bring on the rebels/the ripples from pebbles/the painters and poets and plays/And here’s to the fools who dream/Crazy as they may seem.’
The film fast-forwards five years. Mia found her fame and made a life (without Sebastian) in the limelight. The director, Damian Chazelle, teases his audience by showing an alternative ending, in which the couple end up together. But it really didn’t bother me that the pair didn’t end up together. The price of their success is that they cannot have it all (in this alternative world, Sebastian does not get his dream, although he gets the girl).
You can’t chase every dream, and some will inevitably elude you. That’s supposed to be the ‘realistic’ message Chazelle provides his audience with, and it comes through. But I didn’t find this particularly original or surprising.
What really bothered me was this: on reflection, the song, Audition, does not reflect anything about who Mia is. She gets her dream. She’s a famous Hollywood actress, dazzling the coffee shop baristas with her success, as she used to be dazzled by the success of others. But I wanted her to get her dream, not the dream of hundreds of others. Not a mass-produced dream, carefully put together and produced on a Warner Brothers lot.
I felt cheated. Mia is not the young woman who stood in the light in her blue jumper and jeans and sang about leaping, without looking. From her comical audition gigs to her ultimate fame, Mia wins by being someone else. She looked where she leapt and she knew where she was going, because it was a path so many before her had trod. Even the song which rockets her to success, and which seems so sincere, is only the expression of someone else’s feeling.
Henry Thoreau said that ‘dreams are the touchstones of our characters.’ So who is Mia, if her dreams are someone else’s? Who is Mia, if the achievement of her dream results in a flat, materialistic LA lifestyle? I wanted Mia’s soul sing. But she never seems to discover her own tune, her own self. Mia dreamt of making beautiful things, in truth she creates only echoes.
It makes me wonder what message this is, that Chazelle wants to give us? That others should expect to be disappointed dreamers, loving and losing, and giving up feeling for fame? That’s not a message I find compelling, and it’s for that reason that La La Land did not leave me in a bittersweet swoon of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. I’d rather hear another bittersweet mantra from Thoreau: ‘rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.’
So whilst in lots of ways La La Land was very impressive, I won’t sing and dance about it.