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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

La La Land movie review: city of stars, shining just for us

La La Land green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A marvel. Funny and exuberant and bittersweet and cliché-busting and unexpected as hell. We are going to need more movies like this one.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): loved Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, love Gosling and Stone
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Hopeful yet pragmatic. Fantastical yet down-to-earth. Revolutionary yet traditional. Old-fashioned in the best way and totally modern at the same time. Pure escapist cinematic joytweet that you don’t need to turn your brain off to get thoroughly lost in. La La Land is a movie to make you fall in love with movies all over again, just when, I suspect, we’re going to be leaning on movies a lot merely to maintain our sanity. This is an instant comfort movie,tweet one that wraps you in its warm embrace and never lets you go.

We are going to need more movies like this one.tweet

La La Land will make you fall in love with movies all over again, just as we’re going to be leaning on movies merely to maintain our sanity.

La La Land is a marvel. Writer and director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) plants all of its infectious enchantment and its comforting contradictions right there in the opening sequence, a long single-take song-and-dance number that finds magic — magic! — in a Los Angeles traffic jam. Cheery young people in bright primary colors hop out of their stopped cars in the middle of the freeway to serenade a city that crushes people more often than it rewards them… and so they are also bucking themselves up, singing of the Hollywood dreams that they’re still chasing, still clinging to. All of the great things that a movie can be and that La La Land will be are right here in this moment: it’s funny and exuberant and bittersweet and cliché-busting and unexpected as hell, and if you are not a quivering ball of happy-sad tears by the end of this number (and then again at the end of the movie), I don’t know you.

That song? It’s called “Another Day of Sun” — the songs are by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul — and it makes the prospect of another day of sun sound like a bit of a trial underneath the glory of it. Like each sunrise is a drill sergeant pushing you to get up and keep going and never give up. And with its juxtaposition of one of the plagues of LA — the traffic — with the promise that has been drawing hopeful young people for a century, it puts the love back in love-hate. (I can’t think of a single other movie that has found such wonder in Los Angeles except L.A. Story. These two will make a splendid double-feature in the future.) But the hate is still there, too: gentle and mild, but it’s there. La La Land isn’t quite cynical: it’s realistic about the sacrifices it takes to make your dreams come true. You probably can’t have it all. But maybe you can have some of it.

How can you tell this is a fantasy? People are walking in Los Angeles.

How can you tell this is a fantasy? People are walking in Los Angeles.tweet

Enter Mia (Emma Stone: Aloha, Irrational Man) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling: The Nice Guys, The Big Short). She’s trying to be an actress, he’s a struggling jazz musician, and they do not meet in the midst of that freeway song-and-dance. They’re both there, but the most intimate their interaction gets is when they flip each other off in traffic-jam frustration. It’s an anti-meet-cute. Because La La Land is sort of an anti-romance, at least in the way that Hollywood usually treats the subject, as a moment and not a process, and as a happily-ever-after-no-matter-what. Over the course of many months, they keep running into each other all over town, and sparring: they really do not like each other. Their second encounter, as they wander the Hollywood Hills looking for their cars after a party, becomes another song-and-dance, the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain’s “You Were Meant for Me.” The gist of the song is this: “What a lovely night, and what a lovely view. It’s a pity I’m here with you.” It’s hilarious. And in what might be deemed something of an anti-musical touch, Mia sings a line about how her very high heels are contributing to the unpleasantness of their walk… and then she changes into more practical shoes before they start dancing!

La La Land is an anti-romance love story and an anti-musical full of song-and-dance. It’s glorious.

Stone and Gosling are most definitely not Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (or even Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds), and their singing voices are appealingly rough: that’s anti-musical, too. And it’s lovely. With much of the backdrop and the setting here artificial — fake snow at a Hollywood party full of poseurs; studio sets (Mia works in a coffeeshop on the Warner Bros. lot) — Mia and Sebastian are finding something real amidst the glitz, and that is reflected in the lack of slick polish to their singing and dancing. It’s charming and authentic and heartfelt,tweet and of course that is reflected in the fact that they do eventually fall in love, and are happy. For a while. He joins a band (led by John Legend, playing a version of himself) because the money is good, but is this the kind of success he really wants? (He dreams of opening a jazz club.) Her auditions don’t seem to be getting her anywhere, so she begins to develop a one-woman play, which comes with a whole new batch of stresses. Can their newfound romance survive the realities of the creative lives they have chosen for themselves?

Movies: Now more than ever.

Movies: Now more than ever.tweet

Like Inside Llewyn Davis — another of my most favorite movie of recent years — La La Land is about sticking to your artistic guns even when it doesn’t seem to be working or it’s not popular. It’s a love letter to dreamers and all the hard work it takes to make dreams come true. (Yeah, dumb luck is involved, too, but you do have to be prepared when chance presents itself.) Life is like Sebastian’s jazz here, and like Mia’s (and LA’s) cinema, with tangential riffs and negotiations between fantasy and reality. I love that La La Land is an antidote to the notion of late that “grownup” movies are something it’s okay to wait to see on a small screen at home. This one deserves to be seen on as big a screen as you can manage, and not just for the greatest impact of the bright colors and the gravity-defying dancing and the hummable songs — “City of Stars,” oh my!tweet — and the glorious ultrawidescreen CinemaScope cinematography. But also because La La Land’s greatest contradiction is the one that all the best movies embody: its power to convey truth is wrapped up in its overt fakery. The magnificent unreality of La La Land’s fantasy feels more real than reality — definitely a much-needed escape at the moment. Yet it also speaks with hard honesty across that divide about things that can be difficult to acknowledge. How can a movie be both a diversion and an admonition? That remains a delicious mystery.

first viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival

green light 5 stars

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La La Land (2016) | directed by Damien Chazelle
US/Can release: Dec 09 2016
UK/Ire release: Jan 12 2017

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some language
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Question about John Legend’s character (I’ll go back and spoiler this if it’s a spoiler):

    That whole argument about how jazz is supposed to be revolutionary, did anyone else think he was supposed to be right and Ryan Gosling was supposed to be wrong?

  • I think they are characters with opposing but still completely valid opinions. What’s more important is that when he is playing with the Legend character’s band, Sebastian isn’t being true to himself. Or he’ll have to alter his music dreams in order to retain the sort of success he is having with that band. He can’t have both, and will have to choose.

  • LaSargenta

    Truth in posting: I haven’t seen this.

    Am thinking I *should*, just to see if my fears about it are justified, but want to do so w/o supporting in advance if possible.

    Every clip I’ve seen seems to keep Black jazz musicians in the background, as foils for Sebastian. Legend appears to be the only black character with lines. Jazz is a Black american art form. Its roots and history are from Black culture. Imo, aspects of swing did bring in music from other cultures (brought in by Jewish musicians); but, to tell any story about jazz with minimal input from Black musicians is logically impossible and requires purposeful, racist decisions.

    One of my step-fathers was a white, Jewish jazz musician. This very issue, the erasure of Black people in jazz to make it more sanitized for white consumption — especially through the Hollywood Musical — was a topic that came up in our home more than once. It wasn’t until That’s Entertainment 3 that it seemed to publically acknowledged by Hollywood…sort of, by including Lena Horne as a narrator.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    This is one of my problems with the movie (which I generally enjoyed). At that same time that it was making me homesick, it also wasn’t creating a recognizable LA. And not just in silly ways like people walking. I may be wrong, but I’m pretty John Legend was the first non-white actor to speak in the film. And I don’t recall any Latinx characters. I’m just a middle aged white dude who grew up in the Valley. If this stood out to me, I can’t imagine that a Los Angeleno of color recognized that city at all.

  • LaSargenta

    Ok, and you saw the movie while I’ve only seen trailers and clips.

    This really doesn’t make me want to see the movie. I think I’d rather rewatch Singing in the Rain. Or Cabin in the Sky.

    I certainly don’t want to put any ticket money towards it.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It made me miss LA, but it also fed into my romantization of the city. Gosling’s character is an asshole, and Gosling himself can’t carry a tune. Stone’s singing isn’t much better (until her last song, which I still swear was overdubbed) but she’s at least charming. There basically are no other characters. It’s all cutely nostalgic, and pretty to look at, but kind of slight. But it’s also got good odds to win Best Picture from the Academy.

    It had three things going for it:
    1) it made Mrs. Dr. Rocketscience insanely happy (as a spouse this is important to me)
    2) every piano in the movie had a unique sound (as a musician this is important to me)
    3) it ended the way “An American in Paris” should have ended (as a film-lover this is important to me)

  • LaSargenta

    Glad you enjoyed it. (It sucks to spend two hours with a story, or longer, and not enjoy it.)

  • Two of Mia’s roommates are played by Callie Hernandez, whom I’m guessing is Latina, and Sonoya Mizuno, who is Japanese. They’re small parts, but they do have lines and do participate in one of the song-and-dance numbers. There are nonwhite singers and dancers in the big opening number too.

    The main characters *are* white, though.

  • to tell any story about jazz

    I wouldn’t say this movie is *about* jazz, though. It’s not attempting to be a history of jazz, or anything like that. It *is* about a white guy with very particular ideas about jazz, some of which he is scolded on.

    I’m sure that won’t make it any better for you. :-/

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Right, my mistake. Still, those characters are so inconsequential. They only exist to participate in one musical number, and to tell Mia how awesome she is. They vanish as soon as Mia and Sebastian start dating. (Save for a brief appearance at Mia’s show, again to assure Mia that she’s awesome.) That opener is the only time the cast of the film resembles an actual cross-section of Angelenos. And it’s over so quickly that it feels like an after thought, or an attempt to gloss over.

  • Still, those characters are so inconsequential.

    Yes, absolutely.

  • old white woman

    You should go and see the movie before commenting on it. I am WHITE (omg) and one thing I really took away from the movie was how talented the BLACK musicians were/are. I am sick of all the black vs white b.s. If anything, Ryan Gosling’s character was the minority and that’s fine by me. Who the fuck cares. There are/have been many many talented musicians of both colours. In the movie ,Sebastian talks about where jazz originated…in no way does he pretend that it’s a WHITE invention. Did I mention how sick I am of the BLACK vs WHITE b.s. ?!

  • LaSargenta

    Bet you think Elvis Presley was only honoring all the black artists he stole from.

    I’m an old white woman, too. But, in my case, being old lets me see how little has changed in the last 50 years.

  • As a white person, you don’t get to be tired of racism. That’s not how it works.

  • Tonio Kruger

    How can you tell this is a fantasy? People are walking in Los Angeles.

    And, of course, only a nobody walks in LA. (Hey, somebody should write a song about that….)

    But seriously, folks!

    I watched the opening number enough times on YouTube that I have difficulty pretending I hated this movie and yet I could not help being a bit disappointed that “Another Day of Sun” was essentially the high point of the movie. Once it got into the main plot — a plot that essentially inspired me to mentally retitle it First World Problems: The Motion Picture — the movie quickly got very predictable — and worse yet for a musical — not so entertaining.

    It doesn’t help that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s singing and dancing skills aren’t in any danger of eclipsing those of Amy Adams and Jason Segal — much less those of Garland and Rooney, Kelly and Reynolds or Astaire and Rogers.

  • Bluejay

    It doesn’t help that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s singing and dancing skills aren’t in any danger of eclipsing those of Amy Adams and Jason Segal — much less those of Garland and Rooney, Kelly and Reynolds or Astaire and Rogers.

    I’m pretty much done with movie musicals that fail to hire bona fide stage-trained singers and dancers — especially when those singers and dancers are RIGHT THERE (Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, Patina Miller, Jonathan Groff, etc etc) and are often cast in film roles that don’t make use of those talents. “But they’re not stars” is no longer an excuse; as we’ve seen with Crazy Rich Asians, put talented people onscreen and they’ll BECOME stars.

  • Danielm80

    I agreed with your comment when I first read it, but then I saw Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born, and I may have to rethink the rule.

  • Bluejay

    I think Bradley Cooper will just have to be the exception to every rule. :-)

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