Movie Review: La La Land
By Felix Quinonez Jr.
February 6, 2017

Didn't I star in another movie or two with you?

La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a magical Hollywood treat that doesn’t aim to just entertain. It wants to remind us why we love movies in the first place. It’s usually hard to fully appreciate something until the end. But here, the magic takes you over from the very first scene. You realize the movie is something special even as you’re still experiencing it.

Things begin conspicuously enough in what appears to be a regular traffic jam in an LA freeway. But soon it turns into something much more. A woman who was singing to herself suddenly exits her car and begins singing and dancing outside. Suddenly another driver joins her, as do others. Dozens of commuters join in the fun. They are dancing on roofs and hoods of cars. People are doing flips, skate board tricks and the musical number keeps growing and growing until it ends as abruptly as it began.

But before ending, it sets itself up as a mission statement of sorts for the movie. The scene embodies the emotional tone and spirit of La La Land. And through the song, it raises one of the movie’s main themes of following your dreams. The lyrics say, “Could be brave or just insane…we’ll have to see.”

That statement embodies the leap of faith required to follow your dreams. And it carries real weight for the leads Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who are both chasing their own dreams. He’s a jazz musician with aspirations to open up his own nightclub. But he has to play cheesy songs in bars and in an ‘80s cover band to make ends meet. She’s an aspiring actress who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot.

But it also speaks to all of the other drivers and by extension anyone who’s ever been captivated by the allure of Hollywood or another version of the dream so many of us pursue. Another very interesting thing about the opening scene is the fact that the two leads don’t participate in the big musical number and are for the most part absent. It’s a bold move to begin your movie without your movie stars, but it really pays off.

Sure, this is Mia and Sebastian’s story, but there are so many similar stories happening simultaneously. And that’s where the beauty lies. There’s something so universal about wanting to connect with the world through something you love. It’s also scary to think that there are so many people chasing after the same thing. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if you’re actually good enough.

As the first musical number winds down, we see that Mia is too busy practicing for an audition to notice that the cars began moving. Unfortunately for her, Sebastian, who is behind her, has noticed and quickly loses patience with her. He honks; they give each other the middle finger and go their separate ways. As far as meet cutes go, it’s not very cute, but it’s certainly memorable. It’s also not the last time their paths will cross. The seeds have been planted for what will grow into their romance.

Their second meeting is equally brief and unromantic. Sebastian is working as the pianist at a restaurant where his boss makes him play corny holiday songs. Feeling uninspired, Sebastian decides to break from the approved set list and cuts loose.

At this point, Mia just happens to walk in after hearing his music from outside. She spent a similarly vacuous night at a soulless party filled with people she describes as social climbers. When she hears the passion of Sebastian’s music, she’s immediately captivated. Unfortunately playing that music against his boss’s wishes gets him fired. When Mia she goes to talk to him, Sebastian very rudely walks past her. For those keeping score, that could qualify as strike two for them.

Their third meeting is when things finally begin to turn around for these would-be lovers. Mia attends a party where Sebastian happens to be playing keyboard/keytar in an ‘80s cover band. She requests “I ran” by A Flock of Seagulls, which he explains is something you don’t ask of a serious musician. Things are initially very icy between them as they have their first real conversation. But even as they trade barbs, it’s very clear there are sparks between them. (The fact that Stone and Gosling have such great chemistry together definitely helps.)

That could almost be strike three but luckily, later in the night, as the party is ending, Mia sees Sebastian as a ticket to getting out of a terrible conversation when she is stuck talking to a self-absorbed screenwriter who wants to turn Goldilocks into a Hollywood franchise .

The two of them share a polite enough walk looking for Mia’s car, but it is here that the ice between them finally begins to melt. During their search, they break into a musical number on a hilltop. Still, instead of confessing their love for each other, they declare that nothing could ever happen between them,

It feels more like they are trying to convince themselves rather than actually believing this sentiment. By the end of the song, they are about to kiss, except they are interrupted by a call from Mia’s boyfriend. Eventually, they find her car, say goodnight and head their separate ways. But at this point their fates are sealed.

The next day, he comes to visit her at work. As she gives him a tour of the WB lot, they get to know each other and the love they share for their own craft. Mia reveals how she got into acting while a movie is being shot behind them. By the time they finish the tour, it’s become clear that they have feelings for each other.

Just as things are looking up, they hit another snag; Mia hates Jazz. Sebastian obviously can’t stand for this, so he takes her to a jazz café. There, it’s his turn to talk about his passion and his dream to open up his own jazz club. And although she still has a boyfriend, it’s not long before she’s ditching the guy to spend time with Sebastian. As their courtship proceeds, their feeling intensify and they become closer and happier together. And like all romances, for a while, things seem perfect.

The movie is about a lot of things (movies, following your dreams, life, etc.) but in one way or another, it all comes back to love. One of the movie’s biggest achievements is how it captures the magic of falling in love. Mia shows up late to their first date to see Rebel Without a Cause. Because of this, she stands in front of the theater to find Sebastian. In doing so, she makes as grand a statement as anything you could see in the movies she grew up worshipping.

And there, the tentative push-pull dance of new love begins in earnest. The sight of Mia and Sebastian’s hands nervously brushing up against each other is something that we’re all familiar with. We’ve all taken that plunge with the hopes that the other person will leap with us.

New love can often make you feel like you are floating, and here that feeling becomes a literal representation. Mia and Sebastian gracefully float in the air and dance among the stars until they finally share their first kiss in the Griffith observatory. It’s a delightful flight of fancy that serves as a testament to the beauty and magic of filmmaking. The scene deserves to live on in the annals of great cinematic moments. It should be studied and discussed for generations to come. And years from now, a future filmmaker wunderkind will wistfully look back and point to it as the moment where he (or she) fell in love with movies.

It’s that same love for cinema that drives so much of La La Land. Chazelle’s infectious appreciation for the craft and its history is evident in every frame of the movie. The movie is filled with visual callbacks and homages to old Hollywood, but its reverence isn’t just limited to inserting references. The movie is made by someone who clearly understands and has a masterful control of the craft.
The colors pop right off the screen and the shots are so perfectly executed that it feels like visual poetry. Admittedly, at times his style is a bit flashy, but it never becomes overwhelming or distracting.

And it certainly helps that the leads are so magnetic in their roles. Sure, Stone and Gosling aren’t the best singers or dancers, but that’s kind of the point. Their chemistry alone could light up the LA skyline. They not only make for a believable couple but they’re also one that you can’t help but root for.

Unfortunately, as their love is growing, in the background, it seems that life is conspiring to drive a wedge between them. Sebastian joins an old friend’s jazz band that requires him to tour and record for long periods of time. He essentially pushes his dream aside because he believes that Mia wants him to have a steady paycheck.

She eventually gets an offer to move to Paris for a big film role. They both know they’ll always love each other, but also know that they have to follow their dreams. It’s a sad reminder that sometimes life gets in the way of our plans and sometimes the timing is just a bit off.

And in that way, La La Land calls to mind another music-related movie, the unfairly overlooked Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by the Coen Brothers. In that movie, a happy ending for its title character (Oscar Issac) ends up slightly out of reach because the timing isn’t quite right.

But in its final act, La La Land gives a sort of epilogue that can only be found in the celluloid world. It’s magical, exciting and beautiful. It’s a mini-movie cherry on top of this amazing cinematic cake. And it reminds us that even if the happy ending never fully materializes, a version of it will always live on in our hearts.

For all of its technical brilliance, catchy music and great performances, the movie’s greatest strength is its abundant heart. Chazelle has affectionately crafted a captivating love letter to old Hollywood that has an infectious, uplifting spirit. It’s a movie filled to the brim with love, made with love and about love. It’s a salute to all those who chase after their dreams no matter how high the odds are stacked against them. And it’s a beautiful reminder why those dreams will always be worth pursuing.