Film & Television

“La La Land”: Just Singin’ and Dancin’ in the Sun

Over time, the two fall in love. (Admit it, you saw that coming — which is, of course, part and parcel of the fun.) They pursue their dreams but get side-lined; Sebastian joins a contemporary pop-jazz band in order to pay his bills and save enough to open a club, and Mia writes a one-woman play in an attempt to jump-start her stalled career. Their ambitions take them in different directions. Sebastian goes on tour and Mia heads to Paris for her big break. But, they agree that they will always love each other.

It’s hard for us not to love them too. Including La La Land, Stone and Gosling have made three films together, and the chemistry they share feels genuine and joyful. Although neither is a trained singer or dancer, they gamely give their all to each musical number (and there are many).

Stone is particularly moving as Mia. The day-to-day frustrations of a young actress who happens to live in a sea of nearly identical young actresses is palpable. Although we never get to judge her talent (all of her auditions are interrupted by phone calls, lunch orders or downright disinterest), we believe in her dream because she herself so earnestly believes in it. Whether Mia can act or not, Stone most certainly can. She was nominated for an Oscar for Birdman two years ago. She may well take home the award this year. She’s that good.

Stone and Gosling are joined by a handful of strong supporting players. Simmons appears as Sebastian’s angry dinner club boss; Rosemarie DeWitt (whose work I adore and who deserves more leading roles) is Sebastian’s sister; Finn Wittrock (an up-and-coming star known for his evil turns in TV’s American Horror franchise) is Mia’s soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend; and singer-songwriter John Legend is the musician who convinces Sebastian to pursue commercial rather than classical jazz.

La La Land was shot in widescreen Cinemascope, which lends the movie a nostalgic feel. Many of the dance numbers are done in one long take, much like the ballet sequences in An American in Paris and Singing in the Rain. I’ve already mentioned Gene Kelly, and he would have felt at home here along with Leslie Caron, Debbie Reynolds or Cyd Charisse. The main characters, meanwhile, remind me of the Hollywood types Woody Allen has often introduced, most recently in Café Society. And, Chazelle also enjoys poking fun at the L.A. lifestyle — its parties, its people, its Priuses — much like Steve Martin did in 1991’s L.A. Story.

But while these comparisons are apt in my opinion, they don’t detract from the sheer joy that La La Land delivers. If anything, they add to its charm. The movie feels wonderfully familiar and fresh at the same time. In fact, it works on so many levels. It’s a musical of course, and a love story. It’s also a fable of sorts. There are existential questions asked. And the answers aren’t always obvious or easy.

So, the question you may be asking is this. What happens to our heroine and her hero? Do Mia and Sebastian “always love each other” as they promised? Do they end up together?

I won’t spoil it for you. But, rest assured, La La Land ends with a thoroughly satisfying finale. In movie musicals, as in real life, there are many varieties of happy endings.

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