“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem” sings Emma Stone’s Mia in a standout and emotional performance, desperate for work and desperate for validation after years of trying. The line encapsulates La La Land, Mia’s relationship with Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, the lives of those determined to make it big in Los Angeles, and by extension, everyone watching. A clean sweep at the Golden Globes only happens when your film is connecting with audiences, and the above line from ‘Audition’ champions the idea there is a craziness in dreaming for something seemingly unattainable, and that those who dare to dream deserve recognition.
La La Land is full of dreams, and is a film for dreamers. Like every great story, we follow individuals who want more, and they know what that more is. Mia wants to be an actress; Sebastian wants to play jazz and own his own club. A simple enough premise is given real depth when they have a conversation about why they want those things. There is a whole other level of sincerity when the surface layer is pulled back to find the heart of motivation. Why are Mia and Sebastian in LA, and why do they want to follow their respective dreams? They are devoted to their craft – arguably to a fault – that suddenly dreams are sharply put into focus as separate from reality.
It all feels like it comes from a purer and more innocent time. The millennial generation may find their lives reflected back at them in 21st century mumblecore films like Frances Ha, making the more metaphorical La La Land feel heavy with a nostalgia that breaks every time an iPhone jingle goes off or a laptop appears. Worrying about rent, having a placeholder job, facing constant rejection – modern worries are presented in vintage CinemaScope, romanticising a struggle that all seems worth it for art.
That retro aesthetic touches Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. Free of HBO-style explicitness, passion and excitement between the pair comes from flirtatious teasing, harmonious dancing, a shared musical motif, and very few on-screen kisses. Each time their theme plays it acts as a shared feeling, a look, an inside joke, a knowing nod between two people. ‘City of Stars (Pier)’ features both characters harmonising “A rush, a glance, a touch, a dance” – their art expresses spoken and unspoken promises of endless possibilities.
The amount of heart in La La Land’s characters and story is equal to that in its elaborate set-pieces, wonderful choreography, and its infectious songs. ‘Another Day of Sun’s scat-singing intro is a massive earworm, ‘A Lovely Night’ is dripping with romantic tension, and ‘City of Stars (Pier)’ strikes a perfect balance between holding on to a dream and finding where reality fits into that.
Awards success and critical acclaim are one thing, but the word of mouth behind La La Land is so huge because everyone can relate to it. Maybe the film is about love, or dreaming, or self-sabotage, or running away, or art. Despite its grand scale and world-conquering stars, it is still a personal film with a universal heart. It feels like a dream.