A sweeping musical ode to dreamers and romantics

David G. Hughes on Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ (2018)

Gazing into the eyes of Werner Herzog, his ripened skin folding to obscure the piercing iris that had likely seen more than I could ever dream, his sonorous Bavarian tongue advised unto me: “Treat each film as if it were made for you.” This Herzogian aperçu had the veneer of profundity that one would expect of this directorial sage. I thought I knew what he was talking about, but it wasn’t until I experienced La La Land soon after did the words truly reverberate in my consciousness with meaning.

It felt like my film, tailor-made for my anxieties and shown to me at such a crucial point in my existence that one supposes destiny, some supernatural power, had surely interceded to inspire my life trajectory. Not much of a religious man, I am, however, a believer in film. Rather than accredit the supernatural, I applaud the brio of the filmmakers. My belief in La La Land is neither objectively obsessed nor restrained, it is extremely personal and highly effusive; there are times when a film leaves such an impression that it interweaves into the fabric of your being and changes your life by helping you to better understand your thoughts, emotions and the surrounding world. This is the highest compliment that one can bestow a film and I unabashedly bequeath it to this feature.

Director Damien Chazelle is a believer in film too, an evident cinephile in awe of the medium and its salubrious potential to re-energise and inspire. More broadly, he is a believer in the social virtue of expressivity. Beyond cinema, a fascination with music is evident in previous film work Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), Whiplash (2014) and his screenplay to the “B” thriller, Grand Piano (2013). As if enthralled by the synthesis of sound and image, Chazelle has taken it upon himself to resurrect the moribund style and sentiment of the “Classical Hollywood” musical. Although, why bother? Surely the etiolated state of the genre is natural considering that it is generally perceived to be out-of-step with the post-modern audience? An entire generation or two of film goers cannot quite accept the naiveté and sincerity of a trite melodramatic tradition. We do not so easily forget the conservative and often racist underpinnings of nostalgic bliss.

And yet, Chazelle is not insouciant when it comes to the “issues”, he puts the debate at the centre of his film. It is also easy to forget that the musical is, without a doubt, the most stylistically avant-garde and ballsy genre in popular cinema. While many critics are extolling or condemning the film for its nostalgic affection and its Oscar-bait infatuation with Hollywood history, it is important to note that La La Land is first and foremost a protest film for the young, one that speaks to a nomadic generation thwarted by financial burden, impossible dreams and the sins of Generation X. Art and creativity functions as one of the most viable means for social mobility in our society, a way to break class ceilings and empower oneself with spiritual insight. Chazelle has made an audacious film for these audacious people, the “ones who dream” and seek to upend the rules of society and reality itself

Chazelle has cast symbols of vivacious youth and humble talent. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have been following the path of bona-fide movie star duo; they recalled Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their gender comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011), reworked Bogart and Bacall in L.A. noir, Gangster Squad (2013) and now, in what surely certifies them as the most electric on-screen couple since the “Golden Age,” they embody Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They may lack the same level of dancing talent and vocal performance, but this only serves to humanise them and encourage us to fall in love. How appropriate that they both receive their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, together, at the launch of this film; there is something enchanting, undeniably old-fashioned, in their collaborative star-power.

It becomes clear that both characters function as alter-egos for Chazelle; Seb (Gosling) is a jazz pianist and aficionado who bemoans his arts decline in the modern age, while Mia (Stone) is a barrister and aspiring actress raised on Hollywood classics, undergoing countless humiliating auditions to become the next Ingrid Bergman. They both dream of fulfilment within industries that seem to thrive only in their imagination, and it is in their charming obduracy and passion for anachronistic expression that sparks their romantic voyage

And what a voyage! Their fanciful odyssey is complimented by an exquisitely constructed tableau vivant—pictorial L.A. landscapes scorched with purple, red and orange skies; a utopian world forever caught in Magic Hour. Not since Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) has the sensation of being caught in love, when the company of only one person matters and the outside world is a distant hum, been so effectively communicated. Alongside euphoria, in love there is a sundry of complex emotions, sometimes elegiac and occasionally even rancorous. La Land Land does not shy away from these bittersweet and anguishing sentiments. Where many traditional musicals presented phoney emotional resolutions laden with ulterior conservative ideology that re-affirms the sanctity of marriage and the importance of patriarchy, La La Land shows its progressive cards and achieves profound emotional realism—a non-binary, apolitical truth that will have any curmudgeon weeping in tears.

Naturally with any popular success that catches the imagination, there is always going to be a contrarian voice howling against the moon. One can feel the liberal intelligentsia backlash brewing. They will lambast the film for its appropriation of their esoteric auteur Jacques Demy, marking out their elitist territory while ignoring the fact that this is Demy’s greatest advertisement. More absurdly, Elon Rutberg calls the film “fascist”, an ironic suggestion from a man known for his collaborations with Kayne West, the only artist to legitimise the Trump administration. More condescending is the liberal white man criticising the fact that Gosling’s Seb, a white guy, is the saviour of jazz, while assuming for themselves the white saviour role to defend the helpless black man.

With one foot in the past and the other in the future, Chazelle has crafted a musical ode to all the dreamers out there struggling to make a living within the confines of their passion and in the face of pandemic cynicism. It’s easy to be cynical, that’s what get demagogues elected, but it’s harder to be hopeful. La Land Land is an obloquy, the antidote, to incessantly scornful developments, a sincere statement of love and hope. This is a film made for romantics and a world in desperately in need of some dancing.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.