La La Land is an homage to classic films – a movie that is definitely contemporary, yet if not for the ubiquitous Priuses and cell phones it would feel right at home in the golden age of cinema.
It is obvious right from the start the tone that La La Land is meant to evoke, from the vintage logos at the beginning to the font of the text announcing the seasons. In this, it is extremely successful. I’ve seen my fair share of old movies, and La La Land definitely has the same feeling. There are very direct references to several classic movies – the most obvious being Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause – but there are also a few nods to films that may not be so glaring; the last number – a sprawling montage – reminded me strongly of a scene from Singin’ in the Rain, which is my favorite musical.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the music that gives La La Land its heart. This is an old-school musical the way something like Glee was not. When the characters’ emotions are so great that words alone are not sufficient, they start singing. The songs are character driven, and the performances help develop the characters as people. The film opens with a grand dance sequence. A chorus of frustrated drivers stuck in Los Angeles traffic bust into a bouncing, bubbly song about chasing dreams (“Another Day of Sun”). In fact, the entire movie is about dreaming, which I feel adds to the charm. After this rousing opening number, we meet our main couple. Their “meet cute” is…not exactly cute, but it is very LA.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who drifts from job to job, forced to play Christmas songs in an upscale restaurant while he tries to earn money to open his own jazz club. I really think that Gosling is the only actor who could have played him. Very few modern actors could pull off the retro wardrobe but still come across as a modern day man. Not to mention that, as a white man trying to “save jazz”, on anyone else I believe it would have seemed disingenuous. Meanwhile, Mia (Emma Stone) goes on failed audition after failed audition in between her shifts at the coffee shop on the Warner Brothers movie lot. Mia could be any girl in Hollywood who quit school to follow her dream of becoming an actress – or any dream, really. I identified very strongly with Mia for similar reasons. Stone does “everygirl” extremely well, which is probably how she keeps getting cast in such relatable roles.
Spoiler warning: The following paragraphs contain minor spoilers for La La Land.
There are spots that could have been very problematic that I feel were tempered well enough simply by the actors. As I mentioned before, Seb is obsessed with the purity of jazz. He wants to open an old school jazz club and continually laments that a very famous LA one is now a samba and tapas place. Every other jazz musician in the film is black, including Seb’s old acquaintance Keith (John Legend), who gives Seb his big break in his band as well as a speech about how “jazz is about the future”. A white man arguing about a black music movement with black men could have been handled very badly, but as I said previously, with Gosling it feels genuine. And I think it’s about Seb being rooted in nostalgia more than him attempting to police people’s opinions.
Another instance where I felt the film strayed into dangerous territory was the way that Seb pushed Mia to pursue her dreams. He suggests that she write a play – which she does, a one-woman show – and later in the film, when she has basically given up on acting, he persuades her to go for a major audition. I think the only reason I was willing to give this a pass is because she does the same for him. When he joins Keith’s band and she realizes what a commitment it is, she questions if it is really what he wants. A romantic dinner turns into a major argument as she worries that he has given up on the dream of his jazz club to play music he doesn’t even like that much. In the end, it isn’t about the man saving the woman from herself, it’s about the two of them bringing out the best (and the worst) in each other.
La La Land shines best in its song and dance numbers. The first half of the movie was bright and engaging, choreographed dance numbers involving lots of color and movement and atmosphere. “Someone in the Crowd” was both hopeful and not, and “A Lovely Night” could have been lifted from a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers picture. Once we get into the meat of Seb and Mia’s relationship, however, the film starts to stagger and loses its pacing a bit. The last third of the movie dragged because it was light on the music and more focused on the drama.
Other checks in the plus column are the cinematography, the wardrobe, and the score. Justin Hurwitz scored the film as well as the songs, and the music alone is just as important as the songs. Director Damien Chazelle did a fantastic job using camera shots and angles to help define the tone of the film. Sweeping shots and seamless montages help evoke the nostalgia for old-school Hollywood as well as the dream-like aspect of the whole story. Last but not least, the wardrobe is phenomenal. Stone’s in particular is great, starting out vibrant and colorful and gradually becoming more subdued as the film goes on. In fact, both the wardrobe and the setting mimic the characters’ arcs; pay specific attention to the walls of Seb’s apartment.
La La Land was an immensely enjoyable experience, a perfect marriage between past, present, and future. If you’re a fan of the classic MGM musicals, I highly recommend that you see this film. I’ve had kind of an emotional week, and this was just what I needed.
La La Land is currently playing in Los Angeles and New York City. It opens in additional cities December 16 and everywhere January 6. Click here to see when it’s opening in your neck of the woods.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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