Review: La La Land
Movies are different today. The medium has changed in immeasurable ways since its origins. With the advent of sound, color, digital and 3-D, the ways filmmakers tell stories has evolved over and over again. The simple and quaint have given way to the flashy and the grandiose. Very little is done just because it is fun or just because it is expressive. The magic of La La Land is that it comments on all of this not only through its jazz-centric narrative, but also in its very existence. They don't make movies like this anymore, but they certainly should.
The story revolves around Mia (played epically by Emma Stone) and Sebastian (played competently by Ryan Gosling). Mia is an aspiring actress who works at a coffee shop on a Hollywood film lot. Sebastian is a jazz pianist working random club nights while trying to save to open his own jazz bar. The pair start dating after a series of chance encounters bring them together.
Over time, Mia learns to love jazz thanks to Sebastian and Sebastian pushes her to chase her dream of writing her own material. Eventually Sebastian runs into Keith (played by John Legend), who offers him what turns into a full-time touring opportunity. While Sebastian is able to use the money to save for his own club, his work obligations put a strain on their relationship and his ability to support Mia in her artistic pursuits. The pair struggle to make their love work in the face of change and circumstance.
From frame one, La La Land lets you know its nostalgic intentions. The same Cinemascope logo often used by Quentin Tarantino proceeds the opening number--acting as a hat tip to movies from a bygone era. That opening number shows the movie in peak musical form, with a large orchestrated set piece involving hundreds of actors and a shutdown LA freeway. From there, the film continues to marry the classic with the contemporary. Sebastian wears two-tone shoes to an interracial wedding. Mia's iPhone's unmistakable "Marimba" ringtone pops up between scenes filled with wonderful "old school" choreography. It's too soon to know how the film will age, but at the moment it felt very contemporary-cool to see these elements from different eras blended together.
Part of what helped it feel so cool is that so many of its images feel so fresh. Chazelle's eye for color and movement is on full display as he creates this wonderful world of expressive palettes and striking images. The film has so many shots that could very easily become iconic. From their ride on Angels Flight, to their late night prowl through Griffith Observatory, the film is imbued with the most beautiful images LA has to offer. Couple that with the occasional exceptional melody and it is hard not to enjoy the ride.
While the singing and dancing actors are mostly doing respectable work, Emma Stone's Mia is the real show. She owns every scene she is in and the film is best in the moments where she completely fills the frame. She brings heart and levity throughout and gives Mia a certain depth that feels real. It is not hard to imagine other actresses playing the role, but it is hard to imagine them bringing as much edge to it. She manages to give Mia bite, but in a totally accessible way that maintains the film's overall softness.
If the film has a weakness, it is in what it does not seek to do. While the subject matter is right there to be addressed, the film has curiously little to say about the racial elements that run just beneath the surface story Chazelle is interested in telling. These are White protagonists traipsing through a Black world and it is strange for that fact to be present throughout the film and never really get addressed. When Sebastian tells classic stories about the birth of jazz, the racial history that undergirds those stories is ignored in favor of that which is a bit simpler. In retrospect, seeing Mia and Sebastian weave in and out of the Watts Towers in a film that is seemingly uninterested in addressing race is cringeworthy. It is certainly not unforgivable, as Chazelle was simply telling the story he wanted to tell, but it was an opportunity lost, as it could have given John Legend's Keith more to do and given Mia and Sebastian much more compelling character arcs.
As is, it would be difficult to walk out of La La Land not feeling like you had watched a very good film. So many of the elements work so well and the end result is the type of old-fashioned charm you don't often get from modern mainstream efforts. While the music may or may not be your tempo, the beat of the film's heart almost certainly will be.
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