Originally written in 2017
I almost never see a film more than once, but I have now seen LA-LA Land twice, and I have to say I think it is a masterpiece, destined (I hope) to become a film classic. For young or old dreamers and for anyone with artistic, dramatic or musical ambitions, it is an inspiration.
Among LA-LA Land’s many virtues is the way it starts out all frothy and light, with the Broadway-style overture of the opening freeway dance, and then ever so gradually but irrevocably deepens, scene by scene, until it becomes almost tragic in tone. The love story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling) is inseparable from the plot of how they alternately support each other to realize their divergent dreams of success. Their dual and at times dueling narrative is held together by the haunting love song, “City of Stars.” Winding its way through the movie, the hushed, almost whispered tune links one scene to the next. Not so much a lullaby as a melody I would love to wake up to, its piano line is as fragile as the characters’ love. Balanced precariously between the melancholy of life as it is and the joy of life as it could be, “City of Stars” aptly conjures the wistful quality of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova songs.
This theme of melancholy and joy, the two sides of the coin of life, is brilliantly expressed by the film’s structure, with its alternating speaking scenes and musical numbers. The spoken scenes are convincing; none more so than the hinge point of the story – the dramatic argument between Mia and Seb, when Seb burns dinner in the oven. I have never witnessed a more persuasive or realistic argument between lovers in any film. Each character is trying to support the other; each is speaking truth to the other, but they are talking past each other, and understanding fails. What director Damien Chazelle achieves here, with grace and subtlety, is to underscore how easily a seemingly ordinary, everyday failure to hear what one’s lover is trying to communicate can unravel an entire relationship. No matter how small a domestic quarrel may be in the scheme of things, it can have the power to puncture a love as effectively as a pin can burst a balloon. As Chazelle shows, that loss of love, any destruction of love, is a tragedy, if only because it adds another layer of melancholy to life.
In addition to the marvelous music, both the music composed for the movie and the music borrowed from past pop and jazz hits, the brightly colored splendor of LA-LA Land’s cinematography is a visual feast. I particularly admired the nostalgic impact of the many wide-angle lens shots, where an entire block of the Warner Brothers lot or a line of aging Hollywood buildings is displayed to the audience. One feels as if one can simply walk into the scene. These wide-angle shots, including several two-point perspectives of street corners, reminded me of the breathtaking panoramas of Paris that open Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” another movie I have seen twice and look forward to reprising.
When I first saw “LA-LA Land,” I felt the movie belonged almost entirely to Emma Stone. Never have I seen an actress convey so many emotions, so poignantly and so realistically. Her facial expressions are a continuous road map of subtle, non-sentimental, real emotion; the feeling of each glance blends almost imperceptibly into that of the next. With her large blue-green eyes and expressive eyebrows and mouth, she is a master of the closeup; her performance could almost be that of a silent film star. May she never take botox! On second viewing, I continued to feel that it is Emma Stone’s picture – she definitely deserved her Oscar for best actress – but I discovered new strength in the power of Ryan Gosling’s equally sensitive performance.
Particularly effective is the nonchalant way in which Chazelle weaves a wall-mural of Emma Stone’s face, now the face of a famous star, into the street corner that Ryan Gosling rounds to approach his newly opened jazz club, long after he has separated from Mia. The club is quite rightly named “Seb’s,” as Mia proposed, after Seb stubbornly insisted on calling it “Chicken on a Stick.” This is one of many delightful, resonant notes. Another one is the way in which, toward the end of the film, the famous Mia enters the Warner Brothers coffee shop where she originally worked as a barista, and orders, leaving a tip in the jar. All of a sudden, we remember that at the beginning of the movie, the barista Mia serves a famous actress who turns out to be her future famous self. It is a splendid time-warp; a collision of two universes.
The ending sequence, in which the entire plot of the movie is quickly re-enacted, with alternate outcomes – life as it might have been, life as it promises to be – is magnificent. It takes place in a glance — a flash of recognition between Mia and Seb, when they are accidentally re-united in his jazz club after an absence of five years. He is sitting at the piano; she observes from the back of the house. That momentary glance speaks not only of their love bond as artistic dreamers, but of the pain they both endured, she as a would-be actress and he as a would-be jazz pianist, as their careers alternately leap-frogged ahead of each other. His success came first and her ultimately greater success arrived later– too late, as it turns out, for their love to blossom into marriage.
In that brief moment, we in the audience feel acutely both the thrill of their reconnection and the simultaneous devastation of their knowledge that a great love that could have been now will never be. It is a moment that resonates with me on a deep personal level. After I lost my first great love, James, to AIDS, I had an oft-recurring dream that I encountered him out in the street or in the company of others. We smile a brief, wistful smile of recognition, of the re-confirmation of our love, but we acknowledge that we both have new boyfriends, and then we go our separate ways all over again. Although in truth he left me in death, in my dreams I am always the one who leaves him by remaining here in the physical world, without following him to the other side.
I will close by saying that Damien Chazelle has single-handedly brought back to the American cinema three interwoven strands that have been missing for years: romance; music and dance. This is no mere “rom-com;” it is a triumph of the cinematic musical. To quote a famous line from “The Women,” a film from Hollywood’s classic period, “l’amour, l’amour, toujours l’amour!”