La La Land – A Musical Love Letter for Hollywood Dreamers
Short Take: The old school, Cinemascope Hollywood musical gets a 21st century millennial makeover as an aspiring actress and a struggling jazz musician find love and dream big.
REEL TAKE: La La Land is one of the hot films on many ‘Best Films of 2016’ lists as we head into award season. Whiplash director Damien Chazelle delivers a love letter to Hollywood in Cinemascope and all its glory. This fantastically stylized musical is beguiling to some (this reviewer included), but not to others. Hopefully what you read here will help you decide if it’s a trip you want to take or not.
The story takes place in modern day Los Angeles. The opening number is nothing short of fantastic. Motorists on a traffic jammed Los Angeles freeway burst forth from cars in a expansive song and dance number “Another Day of Sun”. Critics of the film say the rest of the movie wanes in comparison. I see this number as more of an overture. It’s also where our leads ‘meet-cute’.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress and Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a traditional jazz musician. After flipping each other off on the freeway, each goes on their not-so-merry way. She’s a barista on a movie studio lot. He’s tickling the ivories, playing Christmas tunes in a restaurant where the piano is in the center of the room but is not the center of attention. When they meet again Mia wanders into the restaurant, lured by a melancholy tune played by none other than Seb. It’s a fateful story beat, but not quite a love connection. When they meet the third time, well you know the saying.
Once sparks fly it’s all wonderfully romantic (as is best exemplified in a swoon worthy dance sequence at the Griffith Observatory). Mia and Seb are 21st century millennials but both are also throwbacks to bygone eras; he to the days of Hoagy Carmichael and Charlie Parker and she to golden era of Hollywood.
Some viewers take umbrage with the song and dance caliber of our leads. Sure enough, Gosling and Stone are no Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, but they are good. Moreover, they have acting chops that their musical predecessors did not. For all its lavish visuals and production numbers, La La Land is grounded in a reality where said chops come in much handier than a dandy soft shoe.
Chazelle is a romantic but not a sentimentalist. This may really be where the rubber meets the road for some folks. La La Land is about the joys and pains of pursuing one’s dreams and taking chances, but also facing the consequences of choices, actions and sacrifices. This is good and bad for the film. The story bogs down about two thirds of the way through, losing some of its energy as Seb and Mia’s relationship struggles, but regains its momentum in the final act. The film culminates in a heart pounding musical dream sequence unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It may not be the theatrical production that overture is, but cinematically it is take-your-breath-away terrific.
La La Land is indeed an homage (there’s plenty of references for movie buffs to geek out on), but it’s also its own new, refreshing entity. The film’s aesthetic values are off the charts, big-screen, must-see material. Stone and Gosling are luminous. The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are catchy, and the melancholy little tune interspersed throughout the film is rather enchanting. The choreography is delightful, even if our leads are exactly Fred and Ginger.
If you are a traditionalist, stay home and rent Singin’ in the Rain. But if you’d like to see a brilliantly original, re-imagined Hollywood musical take a trip to La La Land.
Rated PG-13 for some language.
Review by Michelle Keenan