la la land

La La Land

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★★★
Release year: 2016
Genre: Music, Romance Director: Damien Chazelle

At once nostalgic and fresh, La La Land is a vivid smorgasbord of color and life. It nods to classic Hollywood (Rebel Without a Cause, Casablanca) and acclaimed musical directors (Demy, Minnelli) without ever feeling like a caricature. Opening with a remarkable musical number on a crowded Los Angeles freeway, and closing with a fantastic dance travelogue through time, La La Land celebrates the vocational pursuits of dreamers, artists, and romantics. As a dreamer, artist, and romantic, I approve this message.

Essentially a sustained meet-cute between jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), this romance story is surprisingly adult and mature, and not in the way those words typically mean for movies. La La Land is remarkably chaste, relying on neither sex nor rom-com tropes to reveal the chemistry between its two leads. Instead, witty dialogue and banter, as well as honest, earnest conversation and conflict are what make the love story interesting. The film asks if a person can achieve his or her dream in the context of a romantic relationship, or if a compromise is inevitable once two people decide to share a life together. It all depends on what one’s dream really is; in the context of La La Land, it is artistic success and recognition, pursuing one’s passion and making a living from it. Both characters recognize the difficulty in their vocational choices–Sebastian does compromise his ideals of a jazz club in order to be successful in a touring neo-jazz ensemble, and Mia’s grand musical solo is a song about “the fools who dream,” a song which shares a significant number of melodic, lyrical, and thematic parallels with “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppets. My wife and I had a wonderful post-viewing conversation about the dynamic of their relationship, as well as our own–are there dreams we’ve had to compromise for the other person? Is it possible to have both one’s dreams and a healthy, committed relationship? Is it better to have loved and lost, or is love a lifelong act of fidelity? For us, La La Land was the perfect date movie.

The music of La La Land is catchy, and every beat and dance adds to the narrative. I’m not a fan of musicals where the song or dance is entirely tangential to the story, a sort of commercial break to watch some interesting choreography or show off the lead performers’ singing capabilities. The songs here establish the tone of present-day Los Angeles culture, or they add to the audience’s understanding of the internal desires of Sebastian and Mia. Filmmaker Damien Chazelle (director of Whiplash), musical director Justin Hurwitz, and choreographer Mandy Moore (not that Mandy Moore) have crafted a genuinely original story and musical, something which deserves celebration in our era of sequels, reboots, and adaptations. Gosling apparently learned how to play the piano for his role, and it shows–he’s a talented actor and musician, a better-than-average singer and dancer. Stone’s singing capacity isn’t really revealed until that final audition scene, but she’s a playful and skilled dancer and actress. Their chemistry together is startlingly authentic; it’s rare to see two characters who actually feel like they’re falling in love in a film, especially in a genre with such an overt formal conceit as a musical. Gosling and Stone are just delightful here as they flirt, grow in their tenderness for each other, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

Some might find La La Land pretentious, a pat-on-the-back film celebrating the goodness of the movie-making lifestyle and artistic endeavors everywhere. Its roving camera, which dances around the scene as much as the actors themselves, could be viewed as a gimmick, drawing as much attention to the cinematography behind the camera as the choreography in front of it. While I would level those critiques at films like The Artist or Birdman–other Best Picture winners, which La La Land almost certainly will become–this film’s charms and strengths are perfectly balanced between playfulness and sophistication. It never takes itself too seriously, but it also doesn’t devolve into the infantile or simplistic. It is hope and joy embodied in a dance, a lighthearted gala of musical prowess and artistic sensibility. For a dour year like 2016, La La Land puts an invigorating skip in one’s step as it invites the audience to reconsider their own dreams and vocations, their hopes and fears, their relationships and desires.

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