Two years ago Damien Chazelle directed Whiplash, which I loved although some folk have since derided it. I’m still on board with it. It had a musical vibe and starred Miles Teller, who learned legitimately difficult drumwork for it. But apparently Damien Chazelle had been working on a movie years earlier but couldn’t get it made.
La La Land is a musical, written and directed by Chazelle, and is about aspiration and sacrifice. The title of course refers to Los Angeles, the “city of stars” where two people are attempting to live their dreams. Struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has a dream of owning his own jazz club and running it his way, but doesn’t want to sell out. Struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) has a dream of being a successful actress, but doesn’t want to compromise her identity.
The movie begins with a magnificent, one-take song that is the perfect way to bring you into the magical reality of a movie musical. We see a day in the life of Mia and Sebastian, as their paths finally converge. As they flirt and dance and sing and move towards being together, conflicts arise. Sacrifices must be made and decisions are made about their futures. Until we finally get to the last, bittersweet moment that pulls it all out of you.
So what about the music? Not every song is note perfect, but most are engaging and lovely, and Stone and Gosling show off the new dancing lessons they drilled before this movie. The film is also quite beautiful and shows off LA in a way that is both fascinating yet without gauze. This film has already won a few awards, and it’s really almost designed to be the perfect Oscar movie. A musical set in LA with engaging leads and a story with actual themes? Tricky work.
The chemistry we’ve seen first between these two in Crazy, Stupid, Love (which I think has only gotten better with time) is just as electric and palpable. It’s easy to see how these two could connect quickly. Really, I think they are fantastic here, and even if they aren’t necessarily the best natural singers, it doesn’t really matter. Ryan Gosling gets to play an interesting, nuanced character with a complicated path, and he does it well.
And of course, Emma Stone gets to play the actor’s dream role: An actor who’s meant to be really good. There is one scene when it ended that I thought: That’s the Oscar scene. You know the one, the clip they show when someone is nominated. And make no mistake, Emma Stone is a front runner. She probably won’t win, because of some other heavy hitters, but this is probably a career best for her.
Of course I’ve enjoyed her work since her breakout roles in Superbad and Easy A — and by the way, I think one of those has aged better than the other one. Ryan Gosling has been doing the indie thing longer, although he was phenomenal in Drive. This is a movie with a romance that isn’t afraid to be happy and sad, with an electric chemistry and sparkling dialogue.
I don’t think it tops the list of the best movies for me, but I won’t begrudge those who disagree.
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