Damien Chazelle’s La La Land shows how imagining possible worlds uplifts, and disappoints, human life. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) fall in love, but ultimately the film is more about human la-la lands, symbolized by the Los Angeles in which Seb and Mia are trying to make it—he as a nostalgic jazz pianist bent on opening his own club, and she as a barista/actress infatuated with images of old Hollywood.
The movie, though too slow, glows with charm—Gosling and Stone, the cinematography, and the payoff ending. This very good picture offers cheers to our castles in the air, even the crumbled ones: the key lines, buried in a song, turn out to be “Here’s to the dreamers,” “Here’s to the mess we make,” and “She said she’d do it again.”
Before getting to Seb and Mia’s alternative universe, let’s consider the film as a musical. Wrapped in an incessantly winking nostalgia, La La Land will appeal especially to people who enjoy Golden Age song-and-dance romances, even as it will leave us a little unimpressed.
Gosling plays his own piano throughout the film. Because the amiable Emma Stone can indeed act, one should not repeat the quip Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) slings at Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan) in Singin’ in the Rain (1952): “She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance—a triple threat.” In evaluating Gosling and Stone as dancers, one might consider that 2016’s best musical scene must go to Channing Tatum’s “No Dames” in Hail Caesar! and that Debbie Reynolds learned to dance while rehearsing for Singin’ in the Rain. Gosling and Stone fall obviously short of the swinging virtuosity of Astaire and Rogers and the Platonic grace of Kelly and Charisse.
That seems the point. I won’t dance (don’t ask me). But even those of us who sing or dance badly often secretly feel like it. Emotions naturally call forth voice and movement.
La La Land recalls Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996), whose star-studded cast let its musically mediocre flag fly. Both films celebrate the universal love of falling in love, in all its folly and fancy and failure.
Of course, musicals never recovered from the stylistic revolution of the 1960s. What Elvis Presley said in 1969 captures the attitude of many who don’t get the genre: “I couldn’t dig always playing the guy who’d get into a fight, beat the guy up and in the next shot sing to him.” We still tolerate the irrealism from Disney and Broadway, but in film (photography-based, that is) we expect realism. Musical scenes disrupt the audience’s “suspension of disbelief.” Just as we sink into the fiction, devoting ourselves to the characters and their dialogue as possibly real, cloud-cuckoo-land cuts in. Some people don’t like that.
When Seb and Mia slip into a tune while talking, or when they drift through a starry sky while first touching, we see something usually covered up—the movie’s artificiality. By making a spectacle of emotion, by demonstrating the natural bodily effluence of feelings, musicals highlight not only their own fiction, but also our own. They unmask the civilized artificiality of our not making a show when we all damn well feel like it.
Musicals are more realistic than public life, in a way. Civilization, on the whole a good thing, requires us to subdue emotions, even nice ones. Civilization is an act. Musicals reveal the hidden reality bursting forth from inside.
But emotions often mislead—Chazelle gives Seb and Mia a delightful romance, if they can keep it. We all feel like singing and dancing at the first sight of love’s promise, which inevitably gives way to more mundane realities—in the movie, it’s traffic jams, parents’ expectations, house problems, lame jobs, impatience, neglect, and misunderstandings. How can love survive such things? As delightful as they are, feelings, naturally inconstant, are not enough.
Civilization is not only an act, but also a dance. Dance, unlike other art forms, does not make a product apart—a painting, a sound—but allows the dancer, a person, to become the work of art. In civilization, as in love, we learn to cooperate with others to make ourselves, together, something more beautiful. All three—civilization, dance, love—require anticipations, adjustment to others’ cues, and reasonable expectations of others’ (and one’s own) possibilities. By all means, let yourself go on the occasional trip to la la land, since “a bit of madness is key,” as Mia sings. But respecting the humble humanity of ourselves and our dance partners means tempering our over-the-moon hopes.
The dances of musicals exhibit excellence. The dances of civilization, like marriage, aim to maintain important minimums—they train and collect our emotions rather than letting them fly off. Stylistically, over the past half-century, the culture has moved—not only in music and dance, but in grammar, handwriting, and much else—from the goals of general-education democracy to the ambitions of be-true-to-yourself democracy. Both have pros and cons, and neither is ever consistently applied, but the second, authenticity, works best when following on the first, formation. It is a rare person who can wing it well without the improvisation’s being grounded in good, solid training.
But our free-for-all culture has backed off of widespread instruction in those simple forms that help average people share in beautiful movement with others. Basic rules—of civilization, of love, and of dance—not only lift up folk with ordinary motor skills to good-enough-for-a-wedding, but also help us maintain good-enough relations with those around us when we don’t feel like it, when our mood is off and we couldn’t possibly improvise with inspiration.
By way of contrast, most of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding. Importantly, La La Land ends (spoiler alert here) not in a wedding, but with a marriage shown in the final act. After Seb, Mia must have picked herself up and started all over again, this time with David (Tom Everett Scott). Barely shown, David seems extremely okay. The audience wonders, sadly, did she settle? Her marriage just seems so undreamy. Yet, perhaps it’s not so bad—we might remember here that the Shakespearean comedy to explore what that might happen after a wedding is Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare’s As You Like It is about weddings and marriage. That is, like La La Land, it addresses both the wonderful “power of fancy” and adjusting our expectations to reality. According to Rosalind (sounding just a bit like Mia), “Love is merely a madness,” and this condition is not treated by whipping only because “the lunacy is so ordinary.”
Rosalind warns Orlando that she’ll be hard to handle. When Orlando says he will love her “forever and a day,” she chides him: “Say ‘a day’ without the ‘ever.’” She knows that for love to last, it must outlast romantic feelings, which come and go. Eventually, all successful lovers will lament, with Fred Astaire, “True love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has; we don’t have half the thrills that the March of Time has.” To prepare for marriage, and not just the exciting nuptials, Rosalind is defining dreamy down. She’s in love but wary. Couples can come apart. On that measure, her creator’s least dysfunctional married couple might well be the Macbeths! They cooperate in pursuit of a common goal, whereas Mia’s and Seb’s career aspirations pull them apart.
It’s enough to make all of us want to call the whole thing off, yet Rosalind and Orlando marry, united in that “blessed bond of board and bed” that populates the planet.
Both As You Like It and La La Land suggest that—for a species prone to idealizing imaginary impossibilities—settling down sometimes involves some measure of settling. Though the bride and groom may not know that (and probably shouldn’t), everyone else does. Neither of them, after all, is a fantasy being who walks, talks, and acts under the other’s control. Both (happily) are flesh, which is to say, exciting, but also weak and flawed. And that’s what makes the institution of marriage both challenging and good. (Shh! Don’t tell the happy couple! They’ll soon enough face the music and will need the momentum of love’s madness later.)
Like Rosalind, director Chazelle both enjoys and corrects our unrealistic expectations. He uses the song-and-dance interludes not only to celebrate flights of fancy, but to contrast them with—and to help us affirm—the actual.
Five years after Seb, Mia and David happen into his jazz club. The film’s final number takes us through their cloud-cuckoo-land, the possible world where they made it work: where they made all the choices that would have put the musician in David’s place. Mia leaves. After all, marriage is an institution of civilization, designed to keep our natural what-if flights of fancy buttoned down.
Seb and Mia made a mess of something, and their alternative universe sure seems wonderful. They’d do it all again. The audience knows that some day, when she’s awfully low, Seb’s memory might uplift Mia’s afternoon. But their smile goodbye is an affirmation of human reality, undreamy aspects and all.
La La Land reminds us, in a fun way, both to enjoy our reveries and to put them aside. Ultimately the so-so is better than the la-la, because it is actual. Ours isn’t the best or worst of possible worlds. We might as well get on with it.