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Sparkling Romances and Sweet Facades: Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’

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Hollywood sure loves itself, huh? I mean, this is what everyone is saying about the “soon to be a sure thing” Oscar nominations for Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash follow-up, La La Land. As a musical set in Los Angeles about the masses who arrive in search of fame and fortune, the film most certainly brings up memories of a former Best Picture winner, The Artist. Michel Hazanavicius’ production received backlash for being too nice and nostalgic towards its subject matter: the silent to sound era and the industry’s treatment of stars struggling to transition. The Artist is seen as disingenuous, and La La Land naive. Accurate? Perhaps on the surface. Lurking under the glitz and glamour, I feel, is a subversive nature towards these criticized elements. After all, this IS Hollywood.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling pair up as a couple of starry eyed and ambitious dreamers, finding in each other the motivation and momentum to continue through thick and thin. Stone represents the wannabe actress, surrounded by others like her and pictures of those she wants to be. Gosling functions as the self-sacrificial jazz musician, impoverished on purpose and suffering for the sake of his belief in pure artistry. When they meet, the sparks build before exploding among a planetarium of artificial stars and lights, a moment representing both the fantastical magic and unfortunate fakery of their career circumstances, romantic goals and the town they wish to make it in. They are both genuine in their wants and desires, of course, but perhaps unrealistic about how to accomplish it all.

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Gosling’s La La Land performance resembles that of Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining. And no, I’m not joking. Before going crazy murderous, Nicholson plays the father and husband card with a sarcastic and stubborn edge, treating his wife and child like nuisances than family. Gosling, before meeting Stone, is the same, feeling above all others while living in the squalor he has set for himself. While he doesn’t go insane with an axe, there is, thankfully, an arc that is pushed and completed by the end. In the musical and dance sequences, he loses his attitude and guard for a more emotionally open variation. The more they happen, and the more he’s around Stone, the more he begins to lift that mood.

From the get go, La La Land makes it clear that it’s a throwback. With opening studio credits straight out of a “happier” age, and a song and strut number done most impressively on a freeway in what appears to be one take, there is an undeniable splash of brightness in almost every frame, giving off a wonderfully sweet vibe for audiences. Interestingly enough, it was in this opening that I also felt a dark notion. They’re dancing and singing under the sun, and yet most of their faces are lit in shade, giving a haunting glow to an otherwise shiny moment. On top of this, the bummer of returning to their cars, and going off into whatever reality they live in, was a constant in my mind — not in the back, but in the front. Sorry to be a stick in the mud, but it’s how I felt and what I observed.

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Some suggest that it’s in Ryan Gosling that the weak link is found, perhaps not committing fully to the part. I would argue that this is merely a misinterpretation of a character quality that works for someone who’d rather be a martyr than eat well. If he’s not it, then is Emma Stone? No. In fact, it’s with her that the stars shine the most, in my eyes, truly playing the part as someone who has, indeed, gone through the trials and tribulations of auditions, personal frustrations and low wage jobs. Might I put it out into the ether that a “weak link” doesn’t exist in La La Land. Things are more than they seem, for sure, being more bittersweet than majestic at times, but don’t be overwhelmed; there is much to smile about and much to tap to. After all, this IS Hollywood.

Bill Arceneaux is an independent film critic from New Orleans and member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association. His favorite David Lynch work? Inland Empire. And Batman v Superman continues to puzzle him. Follow him on Twitter @billreviewsand visit his support page at patreon.com/billreviews.

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