Did you know that Hollywood used to make movies featuring lavish production numbers with singing and dancing? It’s true!
Mia (Emma Stone) is a backlot barista with dreams of becoming a known actress; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a piano player with aspirations of becoming a known jazz musician. The two keep running into each other — LA traffic, seedy lounges, pool parties — until the sexual tension becomes too much and they have to move in together. With a common thread of believing in one another, Mia and Sebastian encourage each other to take chances on their big dreams, but will their relationship survive success or failure?
Most folks outside of the industry are only now hearing about La La Land because of announced wins for end-of-year Best Picture awards in various feeder critics groups. Keep in mind this is usually a weighted voting aggregate; if individuals in a critic’s group love and champion a particular movie — just not the same movie — while everyone also likes one particular movie though not as much, the agreed-upon most-liked flick often floats to the top as “best” — shh, it’s an insider secret! But is the end result of this particular awards-winner a good movie that can be enjoyed by all… even if it isn’t really the best?
The short answer is yes, but the movie may aspire to more than it accomplishes. Colorful and lavish, it’s the anti-goth Tim Burton movie: a too-bright production that still can’t help feel like it’s on a soundstage… all very much on purpose. There’s singing and dancing, yes, but nothing particularly memorable; with a wee bit of editing, the showstoppers could be completely lifted out of the production and hardly missed — there’s no integration but feel more like enhancements: “Oooh, what if we did it this way?” Something else of note is, in typical Hollywood fashion, our romantic-interest leads have little qualms about breaking-and-entering or the occasional vandalism, yet there’s no indication of any crimes, slums, or poorer parts of LA other than small apartments and the implied-all water stain on the ceiling. Golly gee, it sure is great that no smoking, drug dealing, or prostitution goes on next door!
That said, plenty works herein. Two particular music cues, one a theme for Mia and another a shared song, fit the movie well. Mia’s theme is nearly hopelessly hopeless, reminiscent of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” while the shared theme sounds inspired by “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca in both form and function — by no means the only reference to the classic film. The movie itself is a clever combination of timeless themes, Hollywood dreams, and superficial cynicism modernized for the mainstream, and yet the jazz reference to being a dying musical style speaks volumes as to the film’s purpose: demonstrating you can make a movie like this and attract an audience… but can you? For the true cynics out there, the film has a curious ending, but if you think a bit on the film’s inspirations, you’ll realize it’s not all that surprising while lending true weight to the story; kudos for that!
If you take offense to movies where people spontaneously break into song and dance or alter the laws of physics abruptly for a stylized romantic moment, this movie is not for you; fans of 2011’s big award winner The Artist are in for a treat. Emma Stone is perfectly cast as the aspiring starlet but there’s not much stretch for her here; the same can be said for Ryan Gosling’s subdued jazzman performance — his default mode which far too many people seem to mistake for “intensity.” That said, he did reportedly learn to play the piano for this role and he looks entirely natural doing it.
Overall, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The film is both an obituary and a throwback, the kind of grand movie no one does anymore and Hollywood types preach too few have any interest in watching — but we’ll see, won’t we? La La Land is PG-13 for language and criminal use of the a-ha song “Take On Me” — and they did it on purpose!
3 Skull Recommendation Out of Four