FILM REVIEW: La La Land
Ambition is a funny thing. It can be the most powerful driving force for a person, their will to succeed literally propelling them through life to the thing they want most. It can also be a terrible burden, a constant reminder of what you want to achieve and the fact that you haven't got your hands on yet. It can drive people away, it can invite the wrong people in. We can be consumed by it, transformed, and not always for the better.
Focused instead through the rather more romantic idea of dreams, ambition isn't really spoken of in La La Land but it beats constantly underneath the vibrancy of the LA picture that director Damien Chazelle paints. The snazzy opening number, Another Day of Sun, is a kinetic blend of styles set on a stretch of highway and serves up an introduction in metaphor; the lovely, sunny people leaping about are stuck in a traffic jam whilst singing about their relentless cycle of trying to get ahead, failing, and getting back up to do it all again. It's all about optimism, the determination to achieve success rather than the potential for failure they face.
Central couple Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are introduced at the end of this sequence, stuck in the same traffic. She's practising for yet another audition alongside plenty of women who look and dress exactly like her, desperate to be an actress. He's a jazz pianist practising a melody as he drives, determined to own a jazz club, but instead is forced to play Christmas carols in a restaurant. They have their meet-not-so-cute and are fated to run into each other in the city a few times more.
Their retorts are the stuff of screwball and it helps to have leads with the sparkling chemistry that Stone and Gosling pull off. They're not the best dancers or singers, which fits with the idea that these are two talented people yet to realise their full potential. The slightly rough-around-the-edges feel for both softens as the film develops and it is fitting that the final song for one of the characters is the most assured solo. It marks a moment of triumph, rather than simple dreaming or ambition. The film also cleverly plays to their strengths, particularly as physical comedians. Their first dance together is both charming and witty, a musical sparring match that brims over with their burgeoning affection for each other.
But their respective ambitions don't go away. It's an underlying tension from the moment that they declare their plans to each other. Can the relationship continue if they both have other places they want to be? The film plays with this tension through their musical pieces, all of which carry the wistful quality that the two characters embody. The darker side of ambition, suppressed in favour of an almost too relentless optimism, threatens to burst their little bubble at any moment. City of Stars, both Gosling's solo version and the duet they perform later, is a perfect encapsulation of both their romance and the fears underneath it. It's dreamy, but melancholic and ultimately, bittersweet.
Much like Mia and Sebastian's relationship, the film captures a feeling that is at once both classical and contemporary. Fans of the classics will delight in spotting the various visual references to much beloved films that Chazelle dots through La La Land. It's a careful balance, but it never quite tips into the cloying nostalgia that would easily sink a confection as light and deft as this. It also returns us to the cyclical nature of the business that characterises Another Day of Sun. There will always be people like the big Hollywood stars or musicians of old and the Mias and Sebs hungry to take their place.
As a film, it wears its heart on its sleeve and encourages its audience to do the same. The gamut of human emotion is here as Mia and Seb's relationship develops from its romantic and fantastical beginnings. They drift into the cold, hard reality of attempting to reconcile their mutual affection for their individual ambitions. Yet it is in these moments, the place where decisions are taken, compromises are made, and dreams are threatened where La La Land really soars.
It is a film that serves not to discourage ambition, but to inspire it. To convince you that taking a chance could be the best thing you ever do, but equally that stepping back and reviewing the situation is just as valid a step. It's an ode to the people who struggle on with seemingly little reward to do a job they love, a celebration of the kind of people who take a risk, and perhaps most importantly, to the ones who fall down and dust themselves off to give it all another go. And for someone in the audience who needs a little optimism to get their ambition back on track, it might just be the push they need.