This review is part of a series of the best of the decade. You can read the other entries in the list by clicking this link. This review contains full spoilers for La La Land as well as Whiplash and I recommend watching both before reading this.
I had a lot of hard debates with myself when making the list that would become my top ten, but the most recent was certainly whether Whiplash or La La Land was the more deserving of a spot. Which of Chazelle’s films was the better? It’s almost a moot point because they’re both great, but for a significant amount of time I thought that I simply couldn’t put La La Land on here. There’s too much stigma around it, too many undeniable criticisms you can level at it, that made it somewhat of a symbolic pariah in the wake of its otherwise huge success. However, I noticed something about all the other films on this list that made me change my mind. There’s a severe lack of joy elsewhere in my list. Even the one ostensible comedy, A Serious Man, is a film that finds its laughs from the cruelty of life. La La Land is certainly not all roses (we’ll get to that closing sequence soon), but it’s the only film on this list which aims to provoke a healthy amount of joy from the audience, something I feel is seriously underrated in film criticism.
The opening sequence of La La Land – “Another Day of Sun” – pretty nicely encapsulates the specific kind of joy that La La Land is going for. It’s not a song that is blind to the hardships of life, the constant rejection and problems that come with pursuing your dreams, but it still celebrates the effort. It’s a film about both the cost of happiness and the achievement of it. As the camera swoops from car to car, the film manages to make even a traffic jam in L.A. look like the most joyful place in the world. Yes, says La La Land, life sucks. But it isn’t all bad.
Those ideas personify themselves in the film’s main characters; Mia, a struggling actress played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a self-proclaimed jazz pianist. A lot of criticism was directed specifically at Gosling’s character’s often smug and stubborn dedication to what he sees as the ‘proper’ form of jazz, even as the world around him moves on. But I think that misses the wood for the trees. Mia and Seb are not the perfect rom-com characters that the audience might expect them to be – they’re deliberately flawed in ways that often make them annoying. If you think the film is fully on Seb’s side then you have to ignore the fact that the band he ends up ‘selling out’ for is not only pretty good, but also fronted by American sweetheart John Legend, who it would be hard to get anyone to turn against.
Still, the hearts of both of the characters are in the right places. While their stubbornness might lead to their relationship eventually falling apart, the film does celebrate their passion for what they believe in. As well as their oft fruitless search for their dreams, the relationship between the two lovers is beautifully realised – both in the larger romantic moments, such as the dance in the observatory, but also in the smaller glances, the initial animosity and, of course, the numerous mistakes made. The collapse of Mia and Seb’s relationship is heartbreakingly done. Chazelle makes good use of dramatic irony; the audience knows exactly what the two of them could have done better but we’re forced to watch them make the obvious mistakes.
La La Land often subverts the classic Hollywood musical romance, but the clear turning point for the film is the ending, where the second act failures of the protagonists are not redeemed into an ultimately successful relationship, but instead the central romance is abandoned in favour of giving the protagonists what they ultimately need to be happy, instead of what the audience thinks they need.
One of the things that makes Chazelle’s solo films (First Man, a good but not great film, was written by Josh Singer) work is the way in which they end. Whiplash, too, has a pretty perfect ending, but it works in a very different way from La La Land. Whiplash operates more similarly to a horror film than a straight drama. It’s a film of continuous rising tension, mainly in the relationship between drummer Andrew and his abusive teacher Fletcher. In the climactic scene, the tension is finally released in one final, mostly wordless jazz performance. The choice of music, the gliding camera work and of course the editing by Tom Cross all come together to present one of the most concentrated forms of catharsis put to screen. It’s an ending that somehow presents a kind of twisted justification to both Andrew’s relentless self-mutilation and Fletcher’s abusive psychology, while still being ultimately triumphant for the film’s audience. Is Andrew now a great jazz musician? There’s no definitive answer to this, but he and the audience have at least reached a moment of satisfaction.
While that ending works for that film, a similar moment of catharsis simply would not fit La La Land. Luckily, Chazelle refrains from pulling the same trick twice. The message of the films could be interpreted similarly – that achievement of your dreams takes sacrifice, but while Whiplash’s ending focuses on the achievement, La La Land’s focuses on the sacrifice. It’s no big feat for me to call the closing musical number of the film the best ending to any film this decade – a piece so full of pathos and regret that it makes me tear up simply thinking on it.
A friend of mine recently asked me what in films most makes me cry, and while I knew pretty quickly the films that evoked the most sadness from me, it was difficult to pin down the reason. Re-watching La La Land, I think I found it. The sadness inherent in that final scene isn’t that the situation is tragic in and of itself. The characters, have, for the most part, found happiness in their new lives. The sadness comes from the acceptance that all happiness in life comes with sacrifices. A film doesn’t have to show me something sad to make me cry, it has to make the more subtle argument that no state of happiness is fully perfect, and La La Land is the film that best exemplifies that way of thinking.
It’s also just a perfectly put together visualisation of those themes on screen. Much as Whiplash uses its music and editing to create a feeling of catharsis, La La Land pulls out all the stops to create a tapestry of bittersweet emotion. The transition from Seb’s bar to the restaurant from the start of the film is so smooth that it throws you off your feet. The dream-like qualities of the scene only start when the two of them kiss, and the reality of what you’re watching sinks in. The ideal life this couple could have had is shown through an increasingly fantastical lens, until it abandons sets all together and becomes the characters watching themselves in a series of home videos. As the scene drifts further and further away from reality, Chazelle distorts it more and more, before dragging us back into the bar. Showing the audience what could have been feels like a cruel trick but Chazelle handles it beautifully.
I talked at the beginning of this post about how joy was underrated, and yet what I seem to have talked about most is how full of sadness the ending is. But what’s important to note is that the film ends not with the montage, but with a smile. There’s a horrible sadness at the core of La La Land, a realisation of the impossibility of having everything you want – but beyond that is an even more important acceptance – that that’s ok. We can’t have everything, and La La Land doesn’t try and fool us into thinking we can. But it takes joy in the effort made to get there and it finds a smile even in the regrets.
As you might be able to tell, it’s more difficult to write about joy than about pain and sadness. Even writing as a critic it’s easier to pin down how something makes you feel bad than good. But I think it’s then easy to fall into the trap of thinking one is more worthwhile than the other – the idea that it’s more worthy for art to remind us of the horrible cruel world in which we are trapped. That could be true, but a film like La La Land that can do that while simultaneously not ignoring the joy that’s also there, is equally worth admiring.