It’s been a long time since Hollywood introduced a theatric musical. For those ready, it’s refreshing to see something other than the ceaseless stream of superhero flicks, sequels and prequels. From the opening elaborate scene, resembling a flash mob on an LA freeway, to the final surreal dream sequence, “La La Land” is something special.
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) was inspired and influenced by such films as “Singing in the Rain” (1952), “Top Hat” (1935) and “Swing Time” (1936). He captures that old time style of love and romance but set in a more modern cynical town that worships everything and values nothing. The numerous musical numbers by Justin Hurwitz range from zany and upbeat to dark and passionate.
There is certainly no shortage of professional singers and dancers eager to star in such a big screen production. But in this case, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”) were selected. Nobody can challenge the acting chops of these former Oscar nominees and they could probably finish well in “Dancing with the Stars.” But, on TV’s “The Voice,” neither might be able to turn the chair of even one celebrity judge.
So the question is if this movie works because of the mediocrity or in spite of it? Or, for some, the roles are just miscast. Mia (Stone) pleads to Sebastian (Gosling), “Maybe I’m not good enough!” He insists, “Yes, you are!” So, sing and dance is what this couple does in presenting the story of an aspiring actress and would-be jazz pianist. For the younger generation, “pianist” is an archaic term for “keyboard player.”
No matter how critical some might be of their song and dance, the scenes are spectacularly staged and crafted. Each “spontaneous” breakout magnificently captures their aspirations and challenges. Gosling, as Sebastian, is cool and charming mostly because he’s Ryan Gosling! We’ve never been big fans of Stone, but as Mia, she easily turns in her best performance as a convincing barista yearning for something more.
This movie is for those who’ve said, “They just don’t make them like that anymore.” Now, they did. Chazelle has created a remarkably beautiful film for idealists and hopeless romantics that long to reach for the stars. Yet, as the story develops, Chazelle somehow reels them back in to today’s contemptuous world.
Along the way, we gain a better appreciation for the cold, harsh and demeaning world of Mia’s auditions, as well as the splendor and decline of Seb’s beloved jazz music. There’s a saying that a rock musician plays three chords to an audience of a thousand, while a jazz musician plays thousands of chords to an audience of three.
At a café on the Warner Brothers lot, Mia serves the stars she strives to be, while Seb plays at bars and restaurants to customers who don’t care about serious music. Seb reasons, “I’m just letting life hit me until it gets tired, then I’ll hit back.” The industry is so competitive, but what if they do succeed? They must follow their dreams, which could present an even bigger challenge to their relationship.
Emma Watson turned down the role of Mia to play Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), while Gosling turned down the part of The Beast to play this role. With no prior piano training, he learned all the songs by heart. There are no hand doubles used in the filming. Co-star, John Legend, a pianist, had to learn the guitar for his role.
“La La Land” is 128 minutes and rated PG-13 for language. This movie is from a genre we’ve not seen in a long time. It’s stylish, whimsical, dark and sweet. At times, the story of their lives moves too slowly, but Seb says life is like jazz, “It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!”
It’s so off the chart, this production cannot and should not appeal to everyone, but that’s the point. Give credit to Chazelle for such a bold presentation with his stunning “Whiplash” in 2014 and now this extremely ambitious “La La Land.” To succeed in the highly competitive entertainment industry, they say it’s not really what you know, or even who you know. It’s what you know about who you know.