Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
After failing to see the film the first time around due to it not being offered in my local theater, I finally had the opportunity to see La La Land during its Academy Award Best Picture Nominee run, and I was not disappointed. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land harkens back to the old days of cinema with its large choreographed dance numbers, beautiful yet simple set pieces, and movie magic seemed impossible. With the Academy Awards quickly approaching, it is easy to see why this film has been nominated for as many awards as it has been.
The story itself is one as old as time, but thats one of the many aspects of this film that call to mind many of the great, old musicals. Ryan Gosling plays Seb (short for Sebastian) a jazz pianist who is almost obnoxiously nostalgic for old jazz that is increasingly less popular. His dream is to one day own a jazz club that glorifies the idealistic age of jazz. Emma Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress working as a barista by day and auditioning for role and role in her spare time. Both Mia and Sea cross paths a few times before they formally introduce themselves to each other and start a multi-month love affair that effects both of their dreams and aspirations. Together the two learn to navigate Los Angeles and achieve their dreams, while also having someone to depend on during the lowest point in their lives. When Mia and Seb find themselves closer to achieving their dreams, the tension between being together and living out their dreams increasings, forcing them to ask whether being together was really beneficial for either of them.
One of the things I love about Ryan Gosling’s films recently has been his balance between being dramatic and sincere while also being funny. Ryan Gosling is one of those talented actors who could easily have a career doing dramatic, serious films, or slapstick-like comedies. It’s for this reason his character steals the show through the entire film. His story is easily more tragic than anyone else in the film. During the more lighthearted moments Gosling owns each of the jokes surrounding his character. As a man known for being handsome and a dream for women everywhere, Gosling has a way of playing characters who embarrass themselves that seems genuine, not just a carefully timed joke. At the same time, he’s an actor that manages to be serious in everything he does. The very last shot of the film is a close up of his face and in that single moment he conveys more emotions than I can count on two hands. Having already played a romantic interest to Emma Stone (Crazy, Stupid Love) probably only made his job easier. As the female lead, I found Emma Stone’s Mia to be underwhelming, which might be due to her playing a role that is different from a majority of her previous roles. The usually sarcastic Emma Stone has been traded for a more serious, dramatic Emma Stone. It’s not bad, just different. Having natural on screen chemistry with Ryan Gosling helped with her performance. There are moments in their early relationship toward the beginning of the film that the sarcastically flirty Emma Stone comes out, and its those scenes that I would consider to be her best. The further the film progresses, her character delves into a sort of melancholy that seems unnatural. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different for the actress and she does it very well. I just hesitate to say it’s incredible. One surprising aspect of both actor’s performances was their ability to sing. I would have never picked Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone as the types to lead a musical, and yet here they have. Both actors execute the song and dance numbers beautifully.
Unlike a traditional musical, La La Land never felt like it was dragging or that it had too many musical numbers in it. It was a film first and foremost, and the film itself cleverly uses this to its advantage in a couple different ways. One way is how it slowly devolves from a musical as the film carries on. The opening number of the film has all of the defining characteristics of a musical like bold colors and dozens of extras dancing and singing in unison. It may take place on an L. A. freeway, but it feels intimate like a theater stage. The second song in the film is also a massive song and dance number that also includes bold colors and dozens of extras. But this is the last time we see this large number of people incorporated into the songs. For the next few songs its just Mia and Seb singing and dancing, until its just Mia, and finally just music. This devolution is also reflected in the color of the film. When the film begins a majority of the characters and the world around them is bright and bold and full of color. As the film progresses the color of the character’s clothing fades to more neutral colors and, in the case of Mia, eventually to black and white. The colors in the world around the character’s also faces to greens and blues, and eventually neutral colors. This change in music and color reflect’s Mia’s journey in L.A. At first she is full of wonder and hope at the idea of chasing her dreams, but after one failed audition after another, the her outlook on life slowly changes. It is no longer bright and hopeful, but rather mundane. I have an idea as to why Mia’s clothes lose color altogether by the end of the film, but I won’t spoil that here.
In the world of musicals, La La Land has earned its place on the list of greats. The story is simple, and nostalgic in a good way. The music is catchy (I’ve listened to it two times through by the time I hit this sentence), and the vocals from the two leads are impressive. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, and romantic. The film even cleverly uses old film techniques to its advantage. The film is nothing short of beautiful. If you have the opportunity to see if before it leaves theaters, I highly recommend you drop what you are doing and go there now.