Reality Intrudes, But ‘La La Land’ A Nice Fantasy


If what you’re looking for in a movie is fun and enchantment, La La Land is the perfect flick for you. It harkens back to the days of the great musicals, a salute to the great Hollywood ones, and, even more specifically, the wonderful French movies of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Roquefort). Director Damien Chazelle, who did the fabulous Whiplash a couple of years ago, created a musical that is wonderfully resident in our time. Not surprisingly, it is already being hyped for the Best Picture Oscar.

The film’s magic begins right from the start as a jammed-up freeway in Los Angeles stalls. One of the drivers begins to sing the catchy Another Day of Sun by composer Justin Hurwitz, and soon all the drivers are outside their cars, dancing around or on them. It is perfect screen magic, setting the mood. Remember “New York, New York” from On The Town or the great ballet in An American in Paris? The music may not quite be up to Gershwin and Bernstein, but the number takes off.

But this is not your standard musical. It is far more grounded in reality. Typical musicals feature success and great Hollywood romances, whereas this film is set more in real life. At the end of the dance number, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), one of the many beautiful young women who move to Hollywood in hopes of a career, is stalled on her way to a job as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot. Jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) swings around her car, and she shows him her middle finger, which he returns.

Mia wants to act and goes to dozens of auditions but gets only bit parts. Only her job making coffee pays her rent. She is going nowhere, but fervently believes that somehow, somewhere, she’ll get the break she needs. Sebastian is a jazz pianist, very into what he considers “good music.” While dreaming of opening his own club, he plays terrible music at a small club. His reluctance to “sell out” leads to him being fired by Bill (J.K. Simmons), the club owner. Later he joins a 1980s cover band, and then joins with an old friend, jazz singer Keith (John Legend).

Of course, the two stars eventually meet and fall in love. Chazelle lovingly salutes the old Hollywood. The two see East of Eden at an old movie theater. She shows him the apartment window from Casablanca that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looked through.

Chazelle subtly reminds us that we are in La La Land, though, not just Los Angeles, but a magical world where one has to be slightly mad in order to thrive. After seeing the old movie, the two visit the Griffith Observatory, one of the places in which it takes place, and the two stars dance beautifully together, eventually even dancing into the stars. Think screen magic.

However, the relationship has problems. They have competing ambitions; there are missed dates and miscommunications. There are other people, other commitments. The ending helps make the movie even more interesting.

Neither Gosling nor Stone can match movieland’s great singer-dancers. We are not watching Fred and Ginger or Gene and Leslie. But they do dance well and do it within character. Their singing is OK, but neither are they on the level of John Legend, who does quite well in his part. But they act beautifully. They have great chemistry together.

The story feels so realistic and good that we willingly suspend disbelief when the singing and dancing begins. The movie is based on a dream, a love fantasy about love. In some ways, the lack of real expertise helps; it makes the couple more real, which reflects the main story.

Right now this is the hot movie to bet on for the Oscars. Musicals seldom win, but in a year when other top films are downers, who knows? You certainly can’t lose by going to see it. It is one of the best films I have seen this year. Go see it. Even better, see it with someone you love. Or someone you might love.