His script was originally about a younger pair of aspiring stars settling into LA for the first time, with planning set on casting Miles Teller and Emma Watson. After both dropped out for scheduling and money conflicts, Stone and Gosling were brought in and the characters were aged up significantly to fit the new leads. While a seemingly simple change, this older pairing allows the focus of the story to move from two starry-eyed newcomers’ dreams to examining the type of resilient people who are able to work for years while being denied at every turn, helped along solely by their all-consuming passion. The way these aspects of Mia and Sebastian come out is similar to how Michael Mann handles Jamie Foxx’s Max in Collateral, seemingly on the verge of a breakthrough with saving up money as a cab driver to start his own luxury limo company until Tom Cruise asks him how long he’s been at it. The way his simple reply of “twelve years” can fill our imagination with an endless cycle of night shifts in pursuit of a fading dream is akin to when Mia talks about her six years looking for a role to no avail or when Sebastian’s sister berates him for hanging onto his collections of instruments and records in his run-down apartment in hopes of them eventually filling his jazz club. Naturally, those shared years of failure eventually draw them together, and from here, Chazelle’s liberal reimagining of his inspirations’ love stories combined with the abilities of Stone and Gosling to blend Mia and Sebastian’s lives together without losing their individual personalities define much of the movie’s charm. This marks the pair’s third film acting together as a couple, and by now they have it down to a science, skirting just far enough from the edge of cheesiness to make their kisses and conflicts seem believable without sacrificing the loveable Hollywood schmaltz from those bygone pictures the movie constantly draws from.
As a side effect of how well executed and naturally engaging the duo’s relationship is, the musical aspect of the film occasionally feels like it belongs in another, more theatrical story. There are only six songs with singing spaced throughout the film’s two hours, and the first two come within the opening ten minutes. These are also the weakest of the bunch, placed nearly back to back with little room for the story to give them context as well as visually being overblown set pieces that are easy to feel lost in when compared to the simplicity of the later numbers. Those songs, aside from an exuberant concert Sebastian performs with his musician classmate Keith’s (John Legend) pop-jazz band, act as extensions of Mia and Sebastian’s lives together and are much more intimate, with the duo tap dancing beside a skyline view or singing side by side on a piano bench, but the feeling that each act more as momentary diversions from the main story than scenes with any impact remains until the final two numbers.
I wouldn’t want to spoil the second-to-last song beyond saying it’s the first that’s both a great musical and story scene, while the finale, playing out in a much more visually expansive style than Whiplash’s intense drummer-conductor faceoff, creates the movie’s most personal moment by using every previous piece of the story in a style that justifies all of their inclusions. While the unevenness of some of those pieces drags the focus out past Mia and Sebastian and so away from the chief strength of the film, the overarching lightness of the story means the movie never becomes unpleasant. Going in knowing as little as possible about the exact events can definitely help you appreciate their conclusion more (I haven’t revealed anything too important here, and if you avoid the trailers like I managed to, you should be alright), and getting to experience the classic-film chemistry of the two leads along with the finely crafted music and choreography allows La La Land to be enjoyed as a journey about managing dreams and emotions as easily as for its sensory pleasures.