Movie Review: La La Land
By Matthew Huntley
January 4, 2017
The key to a good musical is striking a balance between the ostentatious fantasy and the grounded substance (and hopefully there is grounded substance). Hollywood's “institutional” musicals, like The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain and My Fair Lady, are beloved not because of their song and dance numbers (although these certainly play a role in their appeal), but because they're actually about something when you take these elements away. Their longevity and indelibility derive from the films' strong messages and subtext, while the musical sequences provide the bells and whistles - they make the movies more fun and entertaining.
Perhaps finding such a harmony between depth and spectacle is hard to do and explains why musicals are so rare these days compared to when they dominated Hollywood's Golden Age and remained prolific up through the 1960s. But La La Land made me believe there could be a resurgence because its quality and craftsmanship deserves comparison to the titles I mentioned above, which is saying a lot. At its heart is a bittersweet love story that feels real and pure and it's this element that writer-director Damien Chazelle keeps coming back to in order to make La La Land work as a thoughtful drama, while the music, lyrics and dance sequences give it an extra kick.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as Mia and Sebastian, the film's predestined couple who at first deplore each other but soon realize they may be soul mates. Mia is an aspiring actress who works at a studio cafe and lives with three roommates, who are also would-be actresses. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who'd rather promote classic jazz artists by opening up his own club than rehash the same old jingles in a mediocre restaurant where the owner doesn't allow him to be inventive. When Sebastian decides to put a spin on things, his tune catches the ears of Mia, who happens to be walking by. She goes in to compliment him, but he completely blows her off after his boss (J.K. Simmons) fires him.
This isn't Mia and Sebastian's first encounter - they initially crossed paths during a brief stint of road rage on a busy Los Angeles freeway, which follows the film's opening song and dance number, “Another Day of Sun,” during which the motorists mitigate the stresses of gridlock by singing and swinging their bodies. Everyone takes part except Mia and Sebastian, who are too concentrated on the next moves of their careers. They meet for a third time at a mutual friend's party, and soon thereafter the wheels of romance and destiny are set in motion, as is Mia and Sebastian's willingness to break out into their own song and dance sequences.
The movie is called La La Land for obvious reasons. Not only do Mia and Sebastian live in Los Angeles but they literally detach themselves from reality as they look into each other's eyes, fly through the air, and sing to one another and themselves, making the entire cityscape and the Hollywood Hills, particularly Griffith Park and its observatory, their own personal, moonlit stage.