by Michael B. Hock
Do you remember when you heard the song that would become your favorite? I remember when I heard mine. I didn’t want it to end, so kept listening to it on a loop, wanting to study every little piece of it, examining every word, every syllable, every moment, because I was afraid I would miss something. I was afraid some little bit of it would be taken away, and I might not get a chance to listen to it again.
That’s how I feel about La La Land, the wonderful new film starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
Let me start off with being upfront that of course I’ve heard how wonderful it is, and they are currently inventing awards to present to this movie. I know this isn’t a “hot take” that goes against all conventional wisdom. (That honor goes with The Shallows making my best of list for the end of the year.) The thing is: this movie deserves it. It’s a perfect throwback to old time musicals, it has an amazing cast, a wonderful story about following your dreams and following your love, and still manages to surprise at every step. Quite frankly, it’s the type of movie that reminds me of why I enjoy going to the movies.
La La Land is a pretty cliche story… look, it’s a young actress working in a coffee shop, dreaming of getting her big break! Is that a pianist who loves jazz and refuses to compromise? Do we think they’ll meet? Do we think they’ll fall in love? (Spoilers: Probably). It takes this cliche story and examines what it all means. It takes us on a realistic journey of these two young people who have real dreams, and face the harsh reality of it. All while still taking moments to break into song.
One of the strengths of this movie is the sheer joy that Emma Stone and hunky leading man/meme bring into their roles. Stone, playing Mia, is a struggling actress but it’s not a trait that defines her character. There’s a moment early in the film where she has had yet another terrible audition, only to smile a little as she knows she’s meeting Seb later. It’s a moment that could have played off as unbelievably cheesy – let’s face it, she lost her dream but is seeing the guy she’s falling for – but it’s played so deftly that it takes a minute to realize what is going on. The film calls back to this later in a repeated shot, when their relationship is starting to break down, and it’s a very jarring moment.
Everything in the way that Gosling plays Seb, a guy born about 60 years too late, adds to the character. There’s a joy that comes across his face when he’s playing piano (and a smile that is very important towards the end) that reminds you that is where he belongs and what he loves, and later, when he’s playing with John Legend’s sorta jazz but really pop band, everything that Seb hates, you can almost see the falseness behind this smile.
I point out these two moments but that’s the level of attention to detail that makes this movie what it is. The thing is, everything works into this film to add that level of detail, from the actor performances to the use of lighting and color to the story beats, which seem to tell you where you’re going but manage to still surprise well past the love montage that you know is coming about five seconds after they first meet. Some of these scenes are so beautiful that they could be portraits.
The musical numbers are nothing short of amazing, not trying to tie into something realistic, a problem that some musicals have lately. When Mia and Seb are suddenly flying in an observatory, or an entire LA Freeway stops for a quick song and dance number, it doesn’t seem as out of place as it could. They manage to work with the plot, and they’re used so effectively that by the time the final two numbers come around, they’re so ingrained into what is happening it manages to raise the stakes. Too often these moments at the end of musicals detract from what is going on, because there’s a need to sort of wrap things up. De-Lovely is the last movie I can think of that really played with this concept.
But what makes this movie so effective is the story, something I found remarkably personal despite the musical and broad nature of the film. While most of the ads focus on the sweet Gosling/Stone romance, they tend to gloss over what this movie is about, which is dreams and dreamers. This is a movie about persisting for your dreams, and that even if they’re out of reach, you might need to make sacrifices in order to make it happen. Mia and Seb are falling in love, but they don’t lose sight of what it means to follow what it is in life. The big question of this film is how they do manage to juggle both their dreams and each other. What are they willing to compromise for their dreams and each other? It’s a powerful message wrapped up in a movie that also features a tap number on a hill top as the two leads proclaim they’re not really in love.
I could go on. I’d love to go on, but I can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said. I can only say: go see this movie. It’s for us dreamers, it’s for us lovers, it’s for us who believe. It’s for film lovers and film haters. It’s a wonderful, wonderful film that deserves all of the praise that it has been getting.