The lights in the theater dim, the screen expands, and before I even know the movie has begun, music is playing. The scene is set at an infamous Los Angeles traffic jam and, before barely a verse is sung, my heart is soaring. The dismal vehicular congestion is transformed within minutes into a joyful celebration of Hollywood dreamers. It is in this traffic jam that our star crossed lovers Mia (portrayed by Emma Stone) and Sebastian (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) first meet. Only having sat through the first scene, spellbound, I knew I was in for a treat.
Such was my experience seeing the 32-year-old directorial-student-turned-master Damien Chazelle’s new film, “La La Land.” Having seen the film which launched Chazelle into the main stream, “Whiplash,” I knew going in that the man had chops. “Whiplash” was a very intimate movie with a very small cast about a jazz drummer and his teacher that showed the audience the values of individualism and hard work, even to a fault. In my view, counting “Whiplash,” Chazelle has now written and directed two of the three best movies of the last three years at least. Leaving the theater, I thought, “He’s done it again.” But what had he done?
If nothing else, this film was an ode to Hollywood. Nostalgia for Hollywood’s golden age was packed into almost every minute. Mia is a wannabe actress who fell in love with the movies after watching all of the old classics with her aunt. Sebastian is a jazz pianist, struggling for work. They are both high-minded dreamers, born too late in a world full of cynics. Both of their ambitions evoke nostalgia for the past. Jazz is not as popular a musical art form as it once was; but Sebastian is a purist. Each of their character traits reminds the viewer of classic Hollywood musicals like “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in The Rain.”
As a fan of the Hollywood classics myself, I found this film unbelievably fun. Granted, the tone does deepen and darken as the narrative unfolds, where in Act 1, we find ourselves in the middle of a fun love story that may never meet a conflict. As the movie continues, viewers finds themselves in the midst of a much deeper tale told through some excellent acting by the two leads, Emma Stone standing out among the pair. In fact, Stone makes the part so much her own it is impossible for me to imagine another A-lister taking her place as Mia. Granted, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not classically trained singers or dancers, but they are serviceable in bringing to life the music and lyrics written for them.
The two lovers find their relationship being tested, as the ambition of each individual grows closer to achieving their dreams. It was heart-wrenching to witness the couple being pulled hither and thither by their respective careers, as they remained dedicated to one another; the viewer is fully able to feel the tenderness between the couple and the struggles they have juggling personal and professional life. To call their professional lives “professional” seems to me to understate the fact. Both of these characters lived and breathed their passions and dream. How the two ended up, I won’t spoil here.
The aforementioned music and lyrics were the best and most original to grace the theater in a long time. The movie musical is a dying art and, with some luck, this movie may perform some CPR on the genre of film. The music was able to lift or drown the viewer’s spirit in a way that perfectly suited the mood. In Act 1, the music was lighter and more vibrant. In Act 2, the music took a more somber and especially introspective tone. In fact, the two songs from this movie nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song are probably the two most brooding and introspective. The more famous of these two is Ryan Gosling’s solo performance, “City of Stars,” a pondering song sung to himself on a walk on the boardwalk. However, the most meaningful is the other which the Academy chose to nominate. Emma Stone sings “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” during the apex of the movie, a big audition that decides her entire future. In the movie, this song was supposed to be improvised on the spot, and it showcased Stone’s talent when it comes to holding an audience’s attention as the focal point of a scene like only true stars are able to do. This number was deeply introspective which was made evident by the lack of light on any other character on screen during her singing. I think this number showed the true vision of the film. In it, she sings about her nostalgic youth, her dreams and her hope.
This is really the message Chazelle has been going for in his career thus far. He has used small casts in films to focus on ambitious individuals with lofty dreams. They don’t always succeed, but they always work hard and perhaps most importantly, have hope.
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