After the 2014 Best Picture nominee Whiplash gave us a world where collegiate jazz is a nightmarish torture chamber of brutal perfectionism that only the most warped can survive, director Damien Chazelle rebukes his own darkest timeline with the nostalgic club jazz and vintage Hollywood set pieces of La La Land, an eye-popping, romantic pageant wired like an old-fashioned musical but keenly aware of our compromised 21st-century tableau that rewards far fewer dreamers than previous eras did.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Birdman MVP Emma Stone and The Big Short narrator/purported dreamboat Ryan Gosling do musical numbers. You go see now.
…okay, fine: in a present-day Los Angeles populated by heartfelt wannabes and soulless successes, Emma Stone is a disappointed barista plugging away at every acting audition in her path, even the ones that would stretch “casting against type” to the breaking point. (Playing the part of an earnest actress bombing in poorly fitting parts through no lack of talent isn’t as easy to pull off as it sounds.) Ryan Gosling is an Authentic Musician who wants to make authentic jazz great again by opening an authentic club in an authentic location with authentic musicians and authentic jazz-club cuisine in possibly one of the least authentic cities in America. And this young white guy wonders why his five-year plan isn’t coming together.
But by these youngsters’ logic, L.A. is where artists, musicians, and other creators have to migrate. L.A. is the nexus of all dreams, the granter of all wishes, the source of all fame, the one true Rainbow Connection. Never mind the 24/7 freeway gridlock, the exorbitant cost of living, or the hollow filmmakers who control fates and anoint the Next Big Things only in their ficklest moments. It’s in this deceptively sprightly wonderland that our heroes Sebastian and Mia meet — brought together at first not by their passions, not by their frustrations, but by one simple, seven-note melody floating through the night.
A few chance encounters see spite giving way to tolerance, common ground leading to shared dance floors, and big breaks leaving hairline cracks in the most blissful of facades. Can these star-crossed talents become who they think they’re meant to be? And can they do it together?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Academy Award Winner JK Simmons rejoins his Whiplash director for a few scenes as Gosling’s Christmastime dinner-theater boss, less Draconian and more J. Jonah Jameson in his simple demands. Academy Award Winner John Legend steps away from the soundtrack game for a key role as a bandleader and old colleague who offers Sebastian an opportunity he would love to refuse but can’t.
While Sebastian has eyes for no other women, his romantic competition at various points includes Finn Wittrock (also The Big Short) and Tom Everett Scott, star of That Thing You Do!, an underrated musical for the ages. Josh Pence, the secret Winklevoss twin from The Social Network, is one among the hollow suits. Rosemarie DeWitt, a.k.a. Don Draper’s Bohemian mistress Midge from Mad Men, is the Concerned Sister.
Maybe someday we’ll recognize one of the dozens of dancers and singers who perform their hearts out in the opening number, a rousing traffic-jam spectacle called “Another Day of Sun”. For now they’re largely wishful up-‘n’-comers like Sebastian and Mia, but we’ll see where the years take them from here.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? La La Land is all about the dreams we pursue, the purpose we think is meant for us, what we have to do to find it, and what else we’ll have to do when we don’t. It’s a stirring ode to the disenchantment we face daily before or instead of success. Every time a new musical number lifts us up and sends our hopes soaring for these two kids, the song ends and the surrounding reality subverts our optimistic expectations and gets us to laugh at what crazy dreamers we just became along with them for the space of that shared moment.
As our couple gets to know each other and figures out how to synchronize their rhythms, their career paths diverge toward different options. For Mia, success might mean quitting auditioning as a hobby and creating her own starring vehicle from scratch. For Sebastian, it might mean settling for a sideman’s gig with steady pay and marching orders. Which might be the more fruitful destiny, auteur or company man? Are loftier ambitions worth the risk? How far can a dream be postponed before it’s officially a failure?
As with so many couples here in the real world, Sebastian and Mia ultimately learn that timing is everything, in the paths we walk as well as in the beats we dance to.
Nitpicking? A handful of unnecessary cusswords, including a fleeting yet jarring F-bomb, are virtually all that separate “like an old-fashioned musical” from “actually an old-fashioned musical”. The edited-for-basic-cable version of this movie will be a solid A-plus-plus and I would praise its accomplishments for months to come till friends got sick of me never shutting up about it. Until that version comes around, it means I’ll have to add a qualifying footnote every time I chat up the movie in our offline circles.
Also, Gosling’s voice seems a bit wan compared to Stone’s. Then again, his character is more a jazz pianist than a singer, so I’ll allow it.
So what’s to like? The music of La La Land is a celebration of old forms in entirely new compositions, no recycled Top-40 hits or wedding-party “favorites” that command rote singalongs after decades of commercial-radio conditioning. (Looking in the general direction of your naked artifice, Sing.) The shiny happy dancing, the tapping, the floating-on-air, the impromptu dance troupes, the old-school jazzmen jamming — not every tune is intended for payola-fueled airplay. Every lyric, every measure is rooted in the emotional movements from one phase to the next in their relationship, the crescendos and decrescendos of romance and discontent, the swinging and the foot-dragging, the majesty and the melancholy.
If we have to divvy up the soundtrack, “Someone in the Crowd” and “City of Stars” are the obvious singles, though one of the best duets in my book was “A Lovely Night”, imagining what if Astaire and Rogers had a snarky and irritated dance-off at each other. As they’re taking turns at can-you-top-this-move above the L.A. horizon at twilight, the full, scathing sentiment from the chorus they share is “What a waste of a lovely night.” Points also to the ballad “The Fools Who Dream”, in which Stone reverberates with an aching sincerity that sheds the Hollywood veneer Mia no longer needs.
(Fair warning: if you seek out the soundtrack before seeing the film, anyone prone to overthinking may want to skip the longest track, called merely “Epilogue”, because it technically turns into an instrumental spoiler.)
I’ve seen a few older critics and festival-goers online shucking some easy jokes about millennials and their ostensible naivete about what the world owes them when they’re not happy. Then again, some of us older generations don’t have quite as much to brag about as we’d been led to hope for, either. The vicissitudes of art, industry, and relationships alternately intersect and run parallel against each other throughout La La Land, a world where pop music represents anathematic drudgery, where aesthetic history is a lovely novelty, where sometimes you have to wield a keytar to make ends meet, and where, if you can’t see your own dreams coming true, at least you can take comfort watching dreams coming true for the ones you love.
Special shout-out to my fellow Academy Awards fans: you’ll note at a basic level what we have here is yet another film about filmmaking — and set in the self-loving heart of Los Angeles, at that. You know what that means: prepare to bet big on it in your Oscar pool.
(P.S.: Gambling is wrong.)
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the La La Land end credits, but you’re free to hang out and listen to Emma Stone humming a pretty reprise of “City of Stars”. Not a bad tune to accompany your descent from the clouds back into mundanity.