There could be spoilers in the last two paragraphs, so if you have not seen the film, you might want to read them later.
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
James 2:8 (Lev. 2:18)
Let each of you look not to your own interests,
but to the interests of others.
Three years ago, Damien Chazelle’s acclaimed Whiplash dealt with a dedicated jazz student bullied by his demanding drum teacher. His new film is also about a would-be jazz musician (a pianist), but this time the whole film is a musical, indeed one that re-introduces the musical to audiences, and in a sense, re-invents the genre. The bittersweet plot, especially the conclusion, makes the title a very ironical one. “Romantic” and “La La Land” are synonymous in the minds of many folk, but this film might change their opinion, and even lead those who dislike musicals because “Real people don’t just break out in song like that” to think again.
Set in Hollywood (indeed many scenes unfold in a coffee shop, studios, and audition rooms on Warner Bother’s back lot), the film is episodic. Spanning more than 5-years, its 5 segments named after the 4 seasons, the film begins with “Winter” and ends with it. In the pre-credits opening four rows of cars are backed up on a Los Angeles freeway over-pass. Mia (Emma Stone), dressed in an eye-catching yellow dress, gets out of her car and sings “Another Day of Sun.” She is quickly joined by others. Soon, a hundred commuters are singing, doing daring flips, and dancing around and on top of their cars. It’s a mesmerizing scene as the camera reveals the vastness of the blue sky, the city stretched out below, and the mountains surrounding it. When the traffic starts to move, Mia is slow to step on the gas. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), in the car behind her, impatiently honks his horn, and then when she does move on, he pulls around her, and she gives him the finger.
At Warner Brothers Mia works as a barista at the coffee parlor, dashing off from time to time for an audition. She is treated like dirt by those conducting the auditions, one even taking a phone call during her dramatic emoting. At the apartment she shares with three other aspiring actresses, she resists at first their invitation to go with them to another pool party to mingle and make connections. Giving in and going, she finds herself in no mood to engage in empty conversation (The song is “Someone in the Crowd.”) so she leaves.
Sebastian is an idealistic jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own night spot where jazz fans can congregate. Unfortunately, jazz is a shrinking genre, so he supports himself by playing old standards at weddings and parties. An admirer of Miles Davis and a frequent patron of a jazz spot called The Light House, he has a steady job at a club, but the owner (J.K. Simmons) insists that he play only standards fit to accompany cocktail drinking. One night during the Christmas season, apparently fed up with the usual seasonal pop music, Sebastian improvises a song, which in the rest of the movie will be a signature for him. It is the kind that calls attention to itself, thus distracting patrons from their drinking and conversing. The angry owner fires the pianist on the spot. Trying to appeal to his better nature, Sebastian reminds him it is Christmas, to which the Scrooge-hearted boss replies, “Yeah, I see the decorations. Good luck in the New Year.”
Meanwhile, on the street just outside the club, Mia, having left her friends at the party, is drawn by the faint strains of Sebastian’s song. Entering, she sees the owner talking with Sebastian, but she cannot hear them. As the pianist turns to leave, she smiles and strides forward to meet him, obviously wanting to compliment him. Ignoring her, he rudely bumps her as he rushes out of the club, leaving us to wonder, “When they will ever meet?”
They do, at a party where he is playing at which she baits him by requesting an inane song. Despite this, they begin a friendship that blossoms into romance (Song, “A Lovely Night.). Later, after a date to see Rebel Without a Cause (that almost does not happen), their night stroll turns into a wonderful dance routine in Griffith Park when Mia, sitting on a bench, reaches into her bag and changes from heels to spectator shoes—which, of course, matches Sebastian’s. Suddenly the ordinary changes into the fantastical as they dance in perfect synch, enter the Observatory (no problem getting into the closed facility, this now being a fantasy), and continue to dance through its cavernous main hall. Turning on the planetarium’s projector, they gaze up into a star-studded sky in which several galaxies also can be seen. In the magic of the moment their feet leave the ground, the pair now swirling amidst the stars. An awe-inspiring moment possible only in such a musical.
She moves in with him, even though they look at their art in different ways. Sebastian is totally committed to jazz, even though he knows it is no longer popular. Mia disputes his affirmation that he should play even if almost no one shows up. Art requires an audience, she believes. When she shares the humiliation she has gone through at her auditions, he encourages her to write her own material and produce it. She quits her barista job and stays home to do just that, eventually mounting a one-woman play.
Ironically, Sebastian decides to go for the money, joining his friend Keith’s (John Legend) band “The Messengers.” The money is good, but the music, while tuneful, is far short of what he had dreamt of playing. When Mia attends a session that the large crowd is enjoying, we can see by her face that she is saddened to see him sell out. Also, the band often is on the road, causing long separations.
What happens on the opening night of Mia’s play is heartbreaking at first, leading to their break-up, and yet eventually resulting in unexpected success for her. What amounts to a long coda takes place 5 years later and includes a thrilling fantasy dance sequence of “what might have been.” It is an energetic, gorgeously staged production that would have climaxed the old style of boy-meets-girl musicals. Damien Chazelle gives us the best of two worlds. His film’s title references both the idea of being out of touch with reality and the nickname that cynical writers gave to Los Angeles in general and Hollywood in particular. Mia and Sebastian might live in Hollywood, but no longer are they in La La Land.
The director/writer has assembled a terrific crew, his friend Justin Hurwitz composing the music (also for Whiplash), and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the lyrics. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures the dance sequences and the sites of Los Angeles in glowing color reminiscent of the old big studio musicals—he even shoots in Cinemascope, a favorite format of the 50s musicals and spectacular adventure/historical films. He also harks back to the 20s and 30s by using several iris shots, the technique which opens or closes on a character in a circle, the rest of the screen blacked out. Costume designer Mary Zophres’s lollypop-colored dresses for the women also take us back to those grand old 50s musicals.
But of course, it is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling to whom much of the credit for the film’s success is due. They are utterly charming and move across the screen in their dance numbers with a grace that seems effortless. She is the better singer, but if you liked Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire’s singing, you will enjoy Ryan’s as well. They don’t have the long period of training that the old stars had, so their dancing might fall a bit short, but you will not think about this while watching their beautiful moves. This is another film that demonstrates how beautiful the human body is in motion, and more than doubly so when two dance side by side. I know that the Psalmist was referring to liturgical dance, but I think that the dancers in a musical also bring praise to the One who designed and created the human body.
The film demonstrates well the theme of the importance of support in achieving dreams, each of the lovers strengthening the other during moments of despair. But for Sebastian, Mia would have dropped out of show business. Thanks to his wise advice, she focuses her attention on her basic talent of writing. But for Mia, Sebastian might have continued to play music he disliked, the good money making up for the guilt and disappointment he would have harbored resulting from his giving up his dream. And their Eros love morphs into the love of neighbor enjoined by Scripture, each of them following the dictum of the apostle Paul about looking to the interest of others before their own. It is this which leads to the bittersweet ending. We are not shown what happened during the five-year interval mentioned in the coda, nor is this needed. By this we see that Damien Chazelle respects the intelligence of his audience.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP. If you find this and other reviews helpful, please support the site by buying an issue or taking out a year’s subscription at the store.