The fact that “La La Land” is a modern-day movie musical is the most frequently mentioned fact about it, but the strength of this charming story is in the romance between the two lead characters. The chemistry between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) would be delightful even if they weren’t singing and dancing, perhaps even more so.
I was, frankly, not sold in the film’s opening number, during which commuters leap from their cars as they sit in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, and sing and dance, like an upbeat reimagining of that REM video for “Everybody Hurts.” It seemed like a nostalgic gimmick rather than a meaningful, artistic part of the story. However, by the end of the film, and specifically through the film’s fantastic ending sequence, I was absolutely sold.
Mia is an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop on a movie studio lot and going to countless, dispiriting auditions. Sebastian is a passionate jazz pianist scraping by and dreaming of opening his own club. He worships traditional jazz, and she worships old Hollywood. That’s how the musical format starts to merge more effectively with the story. In the kind of lives these characters want to live, a musical number makes total sense.
Frankly, the musical numbers could have been better, and some of the critical backlash to the film’s success has been over the skills of the leads in that department. At their best, however, I thought their songs together felt natural, as if they were truly moved to sing. I would term this a “musical romance” rather than a “romantic musical.” The songs are secondary to the story, and the story is lovely, well-told, beautifully portrayed and unexpectedly moving.
The two characters dislike one another initially but, of course, soon fall in love. They bond over their shared humiliations in service of their dreams, and support each other. As a love story between these two, “La La Land” could not be more delightful. Their first date, which ends at the Griffith Observatory seen in “Rebel without a Cause,” is the kind of over-the-top romantic scene people are referring to when they say, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
When success comes for Sebastian, in a form he didn’t really ask for, their romance is complicated. Meanwhile, with Sebastian’s encouragement, Mia writes and mounts her own one-woman show. These stars are so sweet together that it’s truly painful to watch them have problems, and in the screening I saw, people actually moaned out loud with distress. For these two dreamers, finding success brings them more problems than failure ever did.
The film captures a certain, necessarily fleeting moment of pure possibility, and also shows, so beautifully, that to see these possibilities through demands sacrifice. Director Damien Chazelle previously made the film “Whiplash,” and his exploration of the demands of art continues.
It is art that drives the characters and art that gives their lives, and the film, meaning. For this reason, this story truly is a fantasy, and even when dreams don’t go as planned, there is a moment — and it is a singing, dancing musical moment — when everything is still possible, and “La La Land” lives up to its reputation.
“La La Land” is now playing at the Crescent Theater, Carmike Wynnsong 16, Carmike Jubilee Square 12, Carmike Wharf, Eastern Shore Premiere Cinema and Cobb Pinnacle 14.
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