Written by Matt Taylor
La La Land Plot Summary:
A musician (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress (Emma Stone) meet and fall in love in Los Angeles.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: La La Land will probably win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. Like many light-hearted films to win before it, there may be a backlash at some point, so let’s just take a moment to remember that when removed from the insanity that is Oscar season. This is an entertaining, beautifully made film that tap dances right out of Damien Chazelle’s heart into ours.
An homage to the musicals that dominated the Golden Age of Hollywood, as well as French classics like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, La La Land follows two aspiring artists who cross paths as they try to achieve their dreams. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician with an idealistic view of his craft and a dream to one day open his own club. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress working as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot with a passion for live theater who can’t seem to land any roles. The two fall in love, take steps closer to the spotlight, and are then forced to deal with the problems that inevitably arise when only one member of a romantic pair manages to actually achieve their dreams. Along the way, they dance and sing. A lot.
From its opening scene, a phenomenally choreographed ensemble number set in the midst of a traffic jam on the LA turnpike, Chazelle’s new film clearly takes place in a sort of heightened reality, and your enjoyment of the film will directly correlate with how willing you are to go along with this ridiculously optimistic world. In an effort to pay tribute to the film that clearly inspired it, moments of La La Land almost feel sickeningly sweet, but any cheesy moments are, wisely, delivered with a sly wink and knowing smile. All the musical numbers work, thanks, in part, to how well staged they are, and how passionately they’re performed. The film’s best scene, a ridiculously cute duet between the leads that puts a twist on the typical meet-cute moments in romantic comedies, perfectly encompasses the tone of La La Land: so damn adorable, that your eyes will be too glued to the screen to even think of rolling them.
A big reason for this musicals’ success, however, is the trio of talented individuals at the helm. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have already proven to audiences how charismatic they can be (both individually and as a couple), but their charms are on a whole new level here. Gosling is hilarious, and makes his character smooth and likable while, in another actor’s hands, could have been a jerk. Stone, meanwhile, is immensely sympathetic and charming, and while she’s given far fewer one-liners than her co-star, she lands every comedic beat she’s given. The third star of La La Land is director Damien Chazelle. After showing an incredible amount of potential in 2014’s best film, Whiplash, he delivers another finely tuned example of his talent. Not only does he convincingly create a 1950s musical like Singing in the Rain with modern sensibilities, but he also fills it with at least three memorable sequences that help propel the film into the realm of “instant classic.”
The one problem with La La Land (and it’s a minor one, mind you) is that the musical numbers themselves are far less memorable than the scenes they populate. The opening number is brilliantly filmed but mostly forgettable, while two of the other songs are pleasant to listen to in context, but probably won’t become breakout hits. Conversely, Emma Stone’s big solo near the end of the film is both touching and well filmed, but it’s a tap number between the leads that stands out as a true jaw dropper.
It’s hard to imagine someone walking away from La La Land with a frown on their face. On one hand, it’s so well made that denying the technical craft visible on screen seems completely ridiculous. Beyond that, the film is so damn earnest, optimistic and sweet, that hating it would probably take too much effort. It’s perhaps a tad bit campy at times, but it also stands out as the best type of homage there is: one that’s so well made, it will probably join the ranks of the films that inspired it.