Within five minutes of La La Land, you know what you’re in for. An everyday traffic jam in Los Angeles breaks out into a catchy and energetic dance number featuring dozens of people.
The point of the scene, besides showcasing director Damien Chazelle’s immense talent (He’s 31!), is to convey the notion that we are each living within our own soundtrack. There’s a few hit singles, some deep cuts and a couple of throwaway tracks.
The euphoric scene ends with a tremendous wide shot stretching for miles on an LA freeway. But this isn’t a story about Los Angeles. The wide shot reduces in scale to reveal our main characters, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Their first encounter isn’t exactly romantic.
Sebastian is a Jazz musician bouncing from gig to gig. His ultimate goal is to open a jazz club to not only celebrate the unique genre of music that began in New Orleans, but also remind people that jazz is still alive. Others would disagree. Namely Mia.
Mia is a latte-serving barista by day and an aspiring, but mostly struggling, actress by night. In some of the best scenes in the movie, Mia goes to auditions to bear her soul. But instead she’s met with banal interruptions, countless lookalikes vying for the same role and ridiculous dialogue to read. I’ve never auditioned for a movie, but I do know what rejection feels like. Chazelle and Stone convey such a feeling with scenes that are both sad and funny.
The question La La Land is asking is, how long are you willing to fight for your dreams? How many rejections and failures do you have in you before you hang it up? We all ask ourselves this question and it’s something I think about on a daily basis.
But Chazelle tackles such a delicate subject with grace, earnestness and romanticism. Mia may be near the end of her rope, but Sebastian is insanely optimistic about his own aspirations and hers. When the two finally do get together, the film shines with beautiful songs with lyrics like, “Here’s to the ones who dream” and “City of stars, are you shining just for me.”
Los Angeles is Chazelle’s playground and he showcases different locations to perfection. Whether it’s a posh Hollywood poolside party, a melancholy sunset on a peer or a flying dance sequence at the Griffith Observatory, La La Land is a love letter to the City of Angels. Crane shots aplenty!
Our two leads show their musical talents in different forms with the most memorable happening just as the sun is setting in the Hollywood hills. The flirtatious dance and song number reminded me of something Gene Kelly would have done back in the ’50s.
Gosling is not the greatest singer, but he makes up for it with a number of sensational scenes involving him playing the piano. Chazelle makes it a point to show Gosling’s musical talent which he learned while making the movie. No camera trickery required.
Stone once again shows why she is one of the most charismatic actors working today. Remember that spunky teenager from Superbad and Zombieland? Well, she’s evolved into a serious actress who can be hilarious one minute and vulnerable the next. She can act, dance and sing. If she were a baseball player, she’d be a five-tool player.
Most of the musical numbers happen in the first half. This felt like a conscience effort from Chazelle as Mia and Sebastian’s relationship takes center stage. While Gosling and Stone’s chemistry isn’t quite as strong as it was in Crazy Stupid Love, the two are still terrific together and might just be this generation’s Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
It’s hard to pull off a charming and touching romance without being sentimental and yet Chazelle manages to do it. This isn’t just a love story, but one about passion and ambition and the cost it takes to get where you need to go.
In the end, La La Land manages to be both happy and sad. That’s a hard thing to do. But then again, this isn’t a film we’ve seen in a really long time. Believe the hype. La La Land is magical, nostalgic and the perfect remedy for an otherwise downtrodden year.