La La Land (PG-13) ★★★½

La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Photo Credit: Lionsgate Films

Upbeat Musical with Beautiful Stars

Opening on a warm California winter’s day, we view a typical LA freeway traffic jam and an over-the-top atypical song and dance number; La La Land thus proclaims itself as a throwback to the energetic Hollywood musicals of yesteryear. This deliberate brightly colored scene also sets up the cute or not-so-cute meet between the stars of the film Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a devoted jazz musician. Both Stone and Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love, 2011) give incredible performances that showcase their musical talents, offering us a film that is a pure cinematic joy.

SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: Actress Emma Stone (L) and actor Ryan Gosling attend The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for The Critics’ Choice Awards )

Written and directed by Academy Award nominee Damien Chazelle, who’s known for writing and directing Whiplash (2014), the dark, unnerving tale of a jazz drummer (Miles Teller) under the spell of his abusive/dictatorial jazz instructor (J.K. Simmons), who also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this film. What’s mind-boggling is the fact that La La Land is only Chazelle’s second full feature film; conversely, he stays the course by offering yet another musical-themed film. And what an enormous film this is. We’re talking hundreds of extras, large detailed set designs, delightfully spot-on choreographed dance numbers, distinctive costuming, original songs, a creative humorous yet touching script, and lead actors that shine. Chazelle gives us all of this and more. He’s accomplished a feel-good triumph that also sincerely explores the downside of the quest for fame and love in the all-too-often heartbreak city of Los Angeles.

There are so many things to love about this film, but for me, the highlight is watching the chemistry and talents of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. They are mesmerizing on screen. As individuals, each can hold court in his or her unique way; together, the duo can only be described as enchanting.

Mia, a constantly auditioning actress, works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio backlot as a barista and Sebastian as a jazz pianist in an upscale restaurant with a manager (J.K. Simmons, The Accountant, 2016) that prefers he provide background similar to elevator music. No room for original songs here. Both are clearly miserable in the pursuit of their dreams.

Together, they take us all over LA, including the famous Griffith Observatory where we see more incredible cinematography and magic. Sebastian teaches Mia about jazz, and its undertones, and we are privy to their jaunts to check out the talent. John Legend (Soul Men, 2008) plays one such talent; he offers Sebastian a chance to be in his band that will begin touring all over the U.S.

Of course, this causes trouble for our duo as they are separated. Mia decides that she should take a chance too and follow through with her one-woman play. Sadly, as they say in show business, it “bombs.” She’s crushed and leaves LA, deciding she’s through with her dream.

In a telling scene, Mia confronts her biggest fears as Sebastian tries to persuade her to see them in a different light.

Mia: Maybe I’m not good enough!
Sebastian: Yes, you are.
Mia: Maybe I’m not! It’s like a pipe dream.
Sebastian: This is the dream! It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!

Meanwhile, Sebastian deals with his own struggles of being a musician who yearns to play original and pure jazz. He states, “I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope.”

My complaint is that, at times, the film seemed to drag. Parts were deliberately very slow; also, there could have been a few less musical numbers. Nonetheless, not a deal breaker for me; I still enjoyed this film immensely.

Do they end up together? Are their professional dreams realized? Do they live happily ever after? These are the burning questions that are all answered by the surprisingly creative ending of the film. (Which I loved, by the way.)
You can’t help but appreciate the ambitious efforts of Damien Chazelle. The film speaks for itself and is one that will serve as a cautionary tale to all dreamers that head to Hollywood.

The Bottom-Line? Up-beat, enchanting classic musical that shows the pitfalls of pursuing love and a career in LA.

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Sebastian), Emma Stone (Mia), John Legend (Keith), J.K. Simmons (Bill)

Credits: Directed by Damien Chazelle. Written Damien Chazelle

Studio: Lionsgate Films

Run Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

Sarah Knight Adamson© Jan. 22, 2017