Past the Popcorn: La La Land is What Hollywood Should Give Us More Of

by Jeff Walls

Writer/director Damien Chazelle was an unknown before he burst onto the scene two years ago with Whiplash, a tough, but thrilling drama about the challenges a young drummer must face to fulfill his dream of being the best.  The movie was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The movie also made quite a profit, earning 50 million dollars with a budget of only 3.3 million.  The success of that movie afforded Chazelle the opportunity to bring his dream project to the screen with La La Land, a charming musical that pays homage to the classic Hollywood musical while at the same time reinventing the genre.

La La Land introduces us to Mia and Sebastian.  She is an aspiring actress who works in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot while suffering through disastrous audition after disastrous audition.  He is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club one day, but is currently struggling after being cut out of a deal by a previous business partner.  They meet by chance again and again until they eventually fall in love as only characters in movie musicals can do.

Damien Chazelle, director of La La LandThe two lovers challenge each other to continue the pursuit of their dreams, but the pursuit of those dreams takes them to places that challenge their relationship.  He takes a steady gig, but that means he has to travel around the country with the band to promote the record they have hope of making.  At the same time, she hopes to showcase her acting talents with a one-woman play, but is having a difficult time getting anyone to come see it.  We in the audience can do nothing but hope that it works out as we quickly come to love these charming characters.

Mia and Sebastian are played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, two of Hollywood’s brightest stars, so bright that they feel right at home when one of the movie’s dance numbers literally takes them to the stars.  This is the third cinematic romance for Stone and Gosling, so it should come as no surprise that their chemistry is right on point.  The two work so well together in this movie, especially during the movie’s fantastic dance numbers, that it is crazy watching it to think that there was actually a point in the film’s production when different actors were cast in the roles.

Emma Stone has been receiving most of the kudos for this movie during its run through the festival circuit and deservedly so.  Not only does Stone show off some impressive singing and dancing skills, she also carries the emotional weight of the movie in her eyes.  There are multiple times in the movie when the camera is focused solely on her and she carries the movie in those scenes, in particular a powerful solo ballad near the film’s final act.

Gosling’s performance should not be overlooked, though.  In a sense, it is a role he has been destined for ever since he sang a little song for Michelle Williams in the middle of 2010’s tough drama Blue Valentine or maybe further back when he was a youngster on the Mickey Mouse Club.  His dancing skills are a revelation and it is a shame that one scene with him on a pier which looks to be his big solo moment is cut a little too short.  Gosling also continues to impress this year with his comic timing, something he also showed off earlier this year in The Nice Guys.

As good as Gosling and Stone are, though, the true star here is Chazelle.  Although the basic idea of this movie—artists doing what they need to do to achieve their dream—is similar to that of Whiplash, the styles of the movies could not be more different.  La La Land is a visual delight with bright colors and some fantastical sets that are reminiscent of the era of musicals that brought us classics like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, even while taking place in the modern day.

The song and dance numbers are incredibly staged, most notably the opening number that takes place in one seemingly unbroken take, while the hilltop dance underneath the streetlamp that inspired the movie’s poster is pure filmmaking delight.  The song and dance numbers are so delightful that it is somewhat of a shame that there were not more of them as the second half of the movie focuses a little more on the narrative and features less set-piece musical numbers.  With characters this delightful and charming, though, following their narrative is a welcome joy.

La La Land is a delightful, original movie that stands out above the crowd of sequels, remakes, and reboots that dominates Hollywood these days.  What Hollywood really needs is more movies like this.

La La Land is now playing at the AMC Pacific Place 11. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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