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La La Land

December 16, 2016
La La Land

Wrapping up the year’s mini-festival of Hollywood on Hollywood films, we come to La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s love letter to classic movie musicals, and to Los Angeles itself. It came out of the festival circuit with critical acclaim, and it hasn’t slowed down since. And I can absolutely see why people would cling to this rare gift of a warm, touching love story on days when everything else in the world seems to be going wrong.

Nobody can argue with the chemistry between stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. They shone in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and were the only good part about Gangster Squad. Here, they are Mia Dolan and Sebastian Wilder, two kids trying to make it in a Hollywood that seems caught somewhere between yesteryear and today. Classic convertibles line the streets alongside modern hybrids. But the real throwback is the way everyone will stop and break into song like they haven’t since the ’60s.

The Coen brothers may have let Channing Tatum soft-shoe his way through a big ensemble number, but La La Land touches on a full spectrum of Hollywood scenes. Remember Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Emmy-winning riff on Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire? it’s got nothing on the effortlessly flirtatious “A Lovely Night”, which finds Mia and Sebastian tap dancing on a quiet street overlooking the twinkling lights of the valley below. “Someone in the Crowd” stacks up against West Side Story‘s “I Feel Pretty” any day. The whole thing kicks off with a big number reminiscent of The Young Girls of Rochefort, and speaking of Gene Kelly, it closes with an epilog like a bittersweet version of the ballet from An American in Paris.

In fact, that’s the biggest departure from the classic format. After Mia and Sebastian meet-cute and get over their initial frictions, things don’t fall in line. Maybe Mia’s dream of acting is just not going to happen. Maybe Sebastian’s jazz club will have to go on hold while he tours with John Legend. The city of stars casts a glamorous spell, and you think it’s shining just for you. But there are so many fools who dream of making it big; even if you do find success, it might not look like you expected it to. It might even require sacrificing something you value greatly, and you will always be left wondering what could have happened if things had worked out a little differently.

Gosling and Stone are hardly this generation’s Fred and Ginger, but they do fine in the number that demands the most from their dancing. Neither is about to start a recording career, but then again Astaire and Kelly weren’t exactly Bing Crosby themselves. As a musical, the numbers may fall somewhat short, but as a film it’s another story. Stone’s voice falters at just the point she needs to deliver an aching, melancholy note as an actress, and the resulting emotion more than makes up for whatever she lacks in raw singing talent is.

No, the real flaw in La La Land is, not surprisingly, the same as in Chazelle’s last film, Whiplash: it undercuts its own hard-won lessons in favor of a crowd-pleasing ending. In that film, Andrew found that his teacher’s harsh methods were not so much insightful and romantic as abusive, only to return and have the script justify all of it by making them actually effective. Here, after puncturing starry-eyed dreams of fame, the film gives both leads the happy endings they always wanted anyway.

In both films, Chazelle delivers a wonderfully engaging finale that only later turns out to be an empty, high-gloss shell. It’s so effective here that I can’t stop thinking about the climactic sequence, even while I know it’s a cheat, and I see how it’s cheating me. There’s some real sort of talent in there, that he can pull off a trick like that. Like the old saw about the diplomat who can tell you to go to hell, and leave you happy to be on your way.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Travis permalink
    December 16, 2016 13:00

    My most anticipated movie. Can’t wait to see it!

  2. March 24, 2017 23:06

    it passes the bechdel test. Someone in the crowd starts with them talking about auditions and regular roommate stuff. They talk about Mia’s play. She talks with patrons at the cafe, she auditions with a woman

    • March 30, 2017 07:15

      None of those other women rise to the level of “characters” in any real sense. They have no names, and we know nothing about them besides a one-off line. I’m not interested in bending over backwards to see where I can grant a squeaking pass to a story whose only meaningful interactions involve men.

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